Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Category: philosophy (page 1 of 14)

Property and The Pursuit of Happiness: Xenophon, Cyropaedia 8.2.14-23

With thanks to Jonathan Culp

At times, ancient texts outdo our self-help gurus. Aristotle’s Ethics: “Read this book, be happy!” Plato’s Republic: “Learn justice while building a powerful city!” Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus (Cyropaedia): “Become a great general and near invincible ruler. Get the education Cyrus had today!”

It is true Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus starts with a narrower, more theoretical claim. Xenophon professes interest in whether men can be ruled like herds. He heard there was one Cyrus who was able to do this, even though it seems to many who meditate on politics that men cannot be ruled like animals. There aren’t pages with bullet points and headers proclaiming “Top 10 Tips for Quick Cash.” Rather, an epic story is recounted with a view to decisive conversations and deeds. There’s a lot to think about; things have not been made easy for the consumer.

But still, let’s get real – Xenophon’s world and ours have a lot in common. There’s ambition aplenty nowadays, just as there was then. Rhapsodes and rhetoricians can find their niche on American Idol or Oprah. It does seem that in Xenophon’s world, one could go out into the middle of nowhere and build a city or found an empire. But that’s happening in other parts of the world, including parts of the world bombarded daily by U.S. drones. Nobility and the desire for political greatness never went away. What died was any serious recognition by the academy of these phenomena. That lack of serious recognition carried over into education generally. However, I would caution anyone who thinks they can see what exactly the consequences of this are, or immediately try to pinpoint where we fail to engage more or less noble desires. For some strange reason, that sort of “inquiry” typically brings forth a lot of unhinged ranting.

To get to the theoretical problem, we have to recognize what pulls or pushes us away from the text. That recognition prepares us to be sympathetic to whatever we find as we consider things carefully. What pulls us to the Education of Cyrus is Cyrus himself. We are presented with a historical figure who conquered many nations and founded a great empire. He was a liberator: his conquest of Babylon allowed the Jews to return to Israel. It is said Caesar took Xenophon’s account of Cyrus’ life to heart. Now how much history is actually involved in this account is another question. Xenophon shows us Cyrus dying peacefully. Herodotus has Cyrus being killed in battle and decapitated. Cyrus’ head was then shoved into a bucket of blood so he had his fill of gore.

All of this is to say that the self-help surface of the text matters immensely. Xenophon really wants us to consider Cyrus’ life as worth living, regardless of how preposterous much of it is. In 8.2.14-23, Cyrus has finished his conquests and is ruling peacefully. He has wealth and happiness and his people are ruled as herds are ruled, herds of sheep:

People quote a remark of his to the effect that the duties of a good shepherd and of a good king were very much alike; a good shepherd ought, while deriving benefit from his flocks, to make them happy (so far as sheep can be said to have happiness), and in the same way a king ought to make his people and his cities happy, if he would derive benefits from them. Seeing that he held this theory, it is not at all surprising that he was ambitious to surpass all other men in attention to his friends. (Cyropaedia 8.2.14)

Cyrus, wealthy, happy, in charge, gives leadership training seminars. A shepherd makes his flocks happy and gets goods for himself. That’s exactly how kingship works, right? A king makes his dominion happy in order to get goods from it. You can see something is a bit strange with this logic: don’t people make sacrifices to be involved in politics? Aren’t there some good rulers known for their piety? The end of a political life is not necessarily the happiness of those in charge.

Then again, who said we were talking about politics? People don’t attend leadership seminars because they want to be leaders. They want to get ahead in their lives or careers, they want to provide for themselves and their families. They pursue happiness through the acquisition of private property. “Leadership” helps them enlarge their domain. This is, to say the least, a more private version of an art we associate with public things. Try actually being a political leader in Cyrusland and see the fun. Still, Cyrus can’t help if his subjects think they can be him to a degree, perhaps learn from him. And, as noted before, Xenophon has a self-help surface of sorts.

The darker political implications remain. Cyrus lorded over others like they were in herds so he could obtain benefits for himself. Lest we be too cynical, a large degree of happiness and order can be presumed in his empire. Earlier in the book, Xenophon gave glimpses of the leaders Cyrus displaced. To call Cyrus a tyrant or despot does not appreciate how awful what he replaced was. Further, the whole idea that one is benefited by an order that keeps others in herds is linked to friendship, of all things: “Seeing that he held this theory, it is not at all surprising that he was ambitious to surpass all other men in attention to his friends.”

From 8.2.15-23, Xenophon tells a story featuring Cyrus and Croesus. Croesus famously thought he was the happiest of men, before being challenged by Solon and conquered by Cyrus. Croesus tells Cyrus that he should store more gold of his privately, quoting him an amount that he would save if he gave less. Cyrus sends out a messenger to all his friends asking them for money, money he tells Croesus he needs. The friends are to write down how much they can pledge, but those sealed pledges are to be delivered by a man Croesus trusts. Of course the pledges, when opened, are considerably larger than the amount Croesus said Cyrus could save.

The surface teaching is to invest in friends. Cyrus takes his surplus and uses it to buy no less than loyalty. But is that a real teaching for those of us in private life? Cyrus is a ruler, after all. He can have the loyal turn on the disloyal well before imprisonment or any harsher tactics. That he can command loyalty is a product of having control of the administration of justice and warfare as well as giving to others.

But Cyrus does come down to earth. He admits he has an insatiable desire for wealth that he cannot rid himself of. He is like everyone else in this regard (8.2.20). But others merely store their wealth, letting it decay, finding their joy in continually counting or seeing it. What he does differently is use his wealth for “security” and “good fame” (8.2.22). These things, which come about through the loyalty he procures, do not decay or do injury to him. Rather, “good fame”  makes him “lighter of heart;” its benefits seem to continually accrue. Taking Cyrus seriously, we see exactly why American Idol was the direct result of a Constitution that protects private property. Wealth alone is not happiness. It must obtain the things which make life easier and preserve us. Ultimately, those things have less to do with property or our own bodies, more to do with reputation and loyalty. Take it from me – it’s a lot easier to work with people who respect you than with people who hold back on giving any support just because.

What Cyrus has given is a vision of a fulfilling life: “one who can honestly acquire the most and use the most to noble ends, him I count most happy” (8.2.23). Give friends as much as you can, and you will do nobly as well as well for yourself. People will guard your wealth for you. This isn’t necessarily tyrannical, but the dark political implications have not been purged, as you have probably noticed. The deep problem is that “freedom” and “respect for others” are not treated terribly seriously. One has to account for everyone else around himself as “herds.”

We haven’t found tyranny: what we’ve found is that our private notion of happiness is noble in a strange way. Again, this is commendable to a degree. Students that bash Cyrus as some kind of bloodthirsty despot miss this question: What is the best politics can do? Still, what we’ve also found is that “good fame” can accompany some of the most shallow behavior, that nobility can be watered down in any day and age. To find other political goods and see further, one should seriously note the points of contrast with another figure Xenophon presents in detail, Socrates. Cyrus’ continence, which served him well in war, is not in the service of any kind of moderation. For Socrates, one could say wisdom is moderation. Cyrus’ happiness residing in “good fame” completely denies the infamy that can be earned by standing for the truth. To use public things to secure one’s private standing may make everyone happy, but perhaps to the detriment of “everyone.” The funny thing about thoughts well-thought is that they aren’t private. Ultimately, they’re a genuine contribution to humanity. To see the world as property, as private gain, is dehumanizing on a level I can’t quite address, though I live in the midst of it.

More on whether Political Philosophy depends on History

Poetry coming soon. I am very grateful for the questions sent and the readership. In what follows, I’ve tried to keep things real. I’m less interested in being right and more on just saying something, continuing the discussion.

I was asked the following question about the Zuckert/Strauss post:

Could you offer an example so that I can better understand what you mean here? “To ask about what is just, all that is required is for one to see or experience some injustice.” I don’t follow how this is sufficient for undertaking the question of justice.

I’ll admit I have a tendency of speeding through points obvious to me and no one else. This is an excellent question about a point that is none too obvious.

Let’s back up a bit. My larger point is that Strauss is not being entirely honest when he says that experience of a variety of regimes, places, and times is necessary for “questions of the nature of political things and of the best, or the just, political order.” My own feeling is that “What is justice?” explodes the whole argument. If one has lived in one regime at one time and is treated unjustly, there is a chance one might question the order she lives in and start imagining different things (cf. Xenophon’s depiction of Socrates and a horse). (To clarify, by “required” I mean “necessary” more than “sufficient.”) Is such questioning as rigorous as that of a political philosopher comparing regimes? Probably not.

Justice speaks to something far more important than intellectual rigor, though. It speaks to actually encountering the question. I love Mansfield’s description of Thrasymachus in his A Student’s Guide to Political Philosophy. Thrasymachus is angry because he’s been treated unjustly. Socrates is busy talking about how justice is either “helping friends or harming enemies” or “doing no harm.” The realities of power and control, realities Thrasymachus is very sensitive to, are flat-out ignored. In questioning Socrates, then, Thrasymachus does not merely assert himself and address an injustice. He contributes to the development of the question of justice itself. And maybe he is most sensitive to what Socrates trying to teach in the Republic.

“What is justice?” isn’t some question that people ask because they’re wondering about what the best law. They’re also wondering how they ought to be treated, what justice is for them, what justice means. You can get to these questions that might be dismissed as “existential” from wondering why one was treated unjustly and questioning the law or institutions that allowed it to happen.

Ah! But that’s not political philosophy, you say. Political philosophy is the discussion of the best regime! Of getting a standard of good and bad! Any idiot can whine about being treated badly. That doesn’t even add up to a serious complaint about a legal system, much less the question “What is justice?” Moreover, we don’t consider founders of regimes philosophers, so even though any given constitution posits an answer to questions like “What is man” or “What is virtue,” that does not count either. A real political philosopher, aware of the diversity of peoples, places, times, and institutions, takes all of it into account and attempts a comprehensive, systematic answer.

I’ll just say this: the more we insist on this sort of intellectual rigor, the more we’re making political philosophy something very specific: we’re making it exactly what some Straussians say Socratic political philosophy is. And I don’t know that’s a particularly philosophic thing to do. Something about philosophy must speak to our experience directly, not just our arguments.

Granted, this is a problematic answer. I guess I’m throwing the tradition of political philosophy under the bus in favor of sophists and second-rate thinkers. And I’ve been told there’s something about seeing beyond the limits of one’s time at stake in using and defending the tradition. But then again, my question when approaching “Political Philosophy and History” is why anyone should care for either discipline. If Strauss’ essay fails to speak to anyone but Straussians, well.

There’s a second part to the above question:

Also, is it worth noting that the interlocutors are not, strictly speaking, Athenians in book 1 of the Republic? Thrasymachus was from Chalcedon, Cephalus was from Syracuse, as perhaps was his son, Polemarchus.

Again, an awesome question. This time I need to address history and experience, and how much is needed for the inception of political philosophy.

I say nearly none at all. If one can imagine a change to one’s own regime, a change of any sort, one is well on the path to imagining a number of different societies. If one conceives of political philosophy as the quest for the best regime, one can just think through societies one made-up and work from there. Write a book and pretend your characters exist and you can do political philosophy, too.

Strauss’ essay, for its part, gives an answer that goes two ways, neither way obviously helpful to my take on things. Sure, he starts by saying that some knowledge of history was required for political philosophy in the traditional view. This Zuckert rightly identifies as a surface that can at least rhetorically stand on its own. (The radically imaginative act that political philosophy is – well, you’ll know it when you see it.) And he ends by talking about the “history of political philosophy,” the project that will help us see the foundations of ideas our historicist tendencies are covering up. The specific importance of history is to more fully see the implications of the ideas one works with. Only a special imagination could adequately account for reality in speculation; I don’t even know we’d call that imagination “best” as the best ones reintroduce us to wonder and remake the world in fantastic ways. So it does seem history is a very necessary task, especially as we’ve been given a past to make sense of. Ignoring it makes us prey to some terrible demagoguery.

Yeah, political philosophy is still 99.9% imagination. I’m going to be uncompromising on this. I’ll trade off losing the debate about a tradition and rigor and development of the theme of natural right, and work to see philosophers as actual people.

A Preliminary Response to Catherine Zuckert’s analysis of “Political Philosophy and History”

Thanks to Joe Connole, with whom I am co-authoring a larger article on this topic.

Articles discussed in this post:

Leo Strauss, “Political Philosophy and History” in What is Political Philosophy? And Other Studies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. 56-77.

Catherine Zuckert, “Political Philosophy and History” in Leo Strauss’ Defense of the Philosophic Life: Reading What Is Political Philosophy?, ed. Rafael Major. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. 43-64.

Let’s just be honest. Leo Strauss’ “Political Philosophy and History” (1949) is boring. Initially, one might also consider it tendentious. Once upon a time, philosophers discussed and debated the best regime, the “standard of good and bad in politics” (Zuckert 43). But now a specter called “historicism” haunts academic and popular notions of politics. It is more dangerous to political philosophy than “positivism,” which rejects the human things in favor of scientific certitude, as “science is good” is not a proposition all times and places accept (43). Historicism argues that “good and bad vary according to time and place” (43). That relativism threatens to destroy our ability to seriously debate what is good or what is bad, thus making political philosophy impossible.

That does describe the first few pages of Strauss’ essay, which to be fair becomes more detailed and nuanced later. However, if one feels that one’s own approach to serious questions is in danger of being stereotyped, labeled “political philosophy” or “positivism” or “historicism,” I don’t blame you. It’s easy to talk about how we acquiesce to convention, but the truth is that we sometimes struggle to accept things that are both true and conventionally held. Moreover, the belief in progress underlying historicism isn’t some waste of time. For example, we believe in religious freedom, women having rights, and people not being slaves. Not all times have held that, and they should be looked down upon for those failures. “The modern prejudice in favor of progress” is an important one (58).

Still, there are a number of worthwhile questions in Strauss’ essay. They’re just a bit tricky to find, for while the surface of things is the heart of things, that may not strictly be true in this case. Zuckert performs an admirable service in rigorously working with the surface. She breaks his “Political Philosophy and History” into its various sections, identifying six distinct parts. She does her best to elaborate important references Strauss makes but passes over quickly. And she builds context where it is hard for a more casual reader to imagine what exactly is being addressed. In performing these very necessary tasks, a central theme emerges: Strauss turns out to be very subtle about how history relates to philosophy. Claims by serious practitioners of historicism are understood and accounted for in his understanding of political philosophy. See pages 48-49 of Zuckert’s essay, especially the mentions of Skinner and Pocock.

But that debate is far too technical to be of use to most people, including those who are serious about their studies and much more. Again, to restate the above: whatever views people hold, they don’t hold them because they really enjoy being conformists. To be fair to Zuckert and Strauss, they don’t malign anyone in their articles. They are writing with a view to how political philosophy and history relate in terms of academic theories and disciplines. There just happens to be a lot more at stake, implicit in their arguments. Dodging these issues by sticking to the surface and keeping things narrow is problematic, to say the least. The deep concern is how much we believe in progress and what the limits of that are. Ancient and medieval thinkers, including some of the greatest moral and philosophic minds, did not assume progress and had quite a bit to say that’s important. “Historicism” as discussed in the essay is ultimately trivial. The real question is why we are drawn to something like it – or, as I’m leaving open, why we, even now, are not always drawn.

To be sure, Zuckert structures her analysis the way she does because she sees Strauss’ “Political Philosophy and History” fitting into the volume What Is Political Philosophy? as a whole. This means she has to restate the surface to a large extent so we readers can keep our place in the narrative. This leads, though, to her taking at face value some claims of Strauss that are questionable. In the very first paragraph, Strauss outlines the traditional view of political philosophy and history. They raise distinctly different questions, but “this does not mean that political philosophy is absolutely independent of history.” He continues:

Without the experience of the variety of political institutions and convictions in different countries and at different times, the questions of the nature of political things and of the best, or the just, political order could never have been raised. And after they have been raised, only historical knowledge can prevent one from mistaking the specific features of the political life of one’s time and one’s country for the nature of political things. (Strauss 56-57)

So we need “experience” of different institutions and beliefs in different countries and times to ask about the nature of politics. We need that kind of experience to ask about what is “best” or “just.” These claims are simply not tenable. To ask about what is just, all that is required is for one to see or experience some injustice. From that point, one might find everything about one’s own order questionable. Moreover, books like the Republic don’t treat a number of different institutions and beliefs in different countries and times in order to try to understand the nature of politics. It looks like that if one simply exaggerates the features of one’s own regime, one can easily see what principles it advocates at the expense of others. One can use one’s imagination – I know, shocking. To say Socrates or Glaucon couldn’t have conceived of a guardian class without Sparta is preposterous.

Strauss also claims that “only historical knowledge can prevent one from mistaking the specific features of the political life of one’s time and one’s country for the nature of political things.” It’s actually pretty easy to see that some “specific features” are not quite natural. We start disliking them, we see them as ridiculous. We might specifically attack them as unnatural, not caring a whit about history, but feeling ourselves oppressed or arbitrarily treated.

Zuckert, at least for her essay, takes Strauss literally in the above passage. Her comment pushes an unironic, serious reading of it. This is what she has to say about the very sentences critiqued above:

Contrary to the assertions of many of his critics, we thus see at the outset of this essay, Strauss does not deny the importance of historical knowledge for the study of political philosophy. He merely, if emphatically, insists that historical and philosophical knowledge are not the same. (Zuckert 45)

However, as far as I can tell, Strauss has put these arguments forth to provoke us. This is the “traditional” – i.e. lazy – view of how political philosophy and history relate. It is only the beginning of Strauss’ argument, which may depend on its esoteric elements more than a coherent surface. Zuckert is well aware of this, but she wants the surface to stand on its own. Unfortunately, if one takes the surface too literally, one can’t do basic things for a text like determine an internal speaker or audience. To be too literal is to intentionally blind oneself. It does seem that Strauss is keen on addressing a certain audience in “Political Philosophy and History,” an audience that is more or less anti-communist, traditionalist, prone to thinking that Plato and Locke have more in common than Plato and Rousseau, or especially Plato and Nietzsche. And right now, I’m thinking he wants to teach that audience that the history of political philosophy, his own project, is a philosophic endeavor solely because of “historicism.” This is quite a radical thesis for someone more traditionally minded. I think Zuckert would concur, but what’s funny is that two different things might be meant by the same conclusion. A lot of people – not Catherine Zuckert – seem to think that you need to know the history of political philosophy well in order to say anything wise or thoughtful about our world. I don’t know about that, and I really don’t want to sign off on anything that would suggest it.

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.”


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.

Introducing Political Philosophy: Some Straussian Resources

I just saw this page dedicated to Vermeer and wanted to become an art historian on the spot. There’s something marvelous about assembling and organizing information well – it really does empower students and make things easier for teachers and scholars.

Truth be told, I would love to link to resources on Vlastos or Rawls or Pocock or other schools of thought, but I don’t know them well enough. So I’m sticking to Straussian stuff, hoping someone will make a wiki on another site and we can get a collection of primary sources, secondary sources, blurbs and introductory articles going. My goal here is to get started, so I’m not aiming to be comprehensive. I’m actually aiming to be done in a half-hour.

Political Philosophy & Leo Strauss himself

Ancient Philosophy



This isn’t a lot, I know. But I think there’s a virtue to the fact that resources by “names” are rare. A good wiki will start cataloging and reviewing papers and dissertations on topics by lesser known people. Lord knows we need that nowadays – the way academia is, you’d think there were 3 people who are allowed to read books and have opinions on them.

On Crispin Sartwell’s discussion of “kalos:” What does knowing have to do with nobility or beauty?

1. Encountered Crispin Sartwell’s “Six Names of Beauty” at the bookstore. Saw that he had a chapter on kalos, the ancient Greek word meaning “noble” or “beautiful.” Started to give his chapter a read, thinking it dissertation relevant, and encountered this:

The Greek words for beautiful (kalos) and beauty (to kalon) have moral as well as aesthetic force. They refer to “nobility” as well as what we would think of as direct visual beauty. But these terms also have an epistemic dimension; they are connected to the idea of knowledge. All of these meanings might be brought together in a notion of “illumination:” the kalos is above all, we might say, what is drenched in light. The noble soul is the clearly illuminated soul, and such a soul will be beautiful. (Sartwell 88)

I agree with Sartwell that yes, kalos has moral and aesthetic force. And yes, it is also “connected to the idea of knowledge.” Where I disagree strongly is with the noble soul being “clearly illuminated.” That implies the noble soul is knowable, and that’s a much stronger claim than kalos being “connected to the idea of knowledge.”

Sartwell continues his case by going to Plato and linking the erotic desire for simple, knowable, all-clarifying truth in the Symposium with ascending from the cave in the Republic. There are Forms which are pure knowledge; we lust after them and strive after them. That means truth, beauty and goodness are all wrapped up, and if it seems Plato is giving us something a bit too simplistic, he is purposely doing so. Kalos seems to refer to the quality of truth to be, in a way, simple. We need to be able to apprehend it and use it when not admiring its elegance.

2. The main problem I have with Sartwell’s discussion is that he has it exactly backward. When I encounter kalos, it’s more like “shining forth,” stupidly obvious. The noble comes from the beautiful – the link is direct. Forget Plato for a second, think Homer. Someone who is noble and beautiful might be descended from the gods and certainly will make claims to rule over the rest of us. Aren’t they a better class of human being, maybe truer to being human than the rest of us?

The questions I’m raising are the heart and soul of Greek philosophy, the reason for the elaborate metaphysics and metaphor in many thinkers. If you tie kalos to the Forms too quickly, you miss what the dialogues are addressing. Case in point: the Symposium is about moderating the other speakers and perhaps Alcibiades. You’ll note that Socrates introducing Diotima to the conversation is quite radical; the other speakers, including Aristophanes, are adamant in defending pederasty in one way or another. You’ll also note that the need for Alcibiades to be moderated is a recurrent theme in a number of other works that give us the history of the time. Similarly, the cave image in the Republic is not a strict ascent, if it is possible to ascend at all. That cave is everyday life for all of us – we all worship likenesses. The city is the cave and grounds “common sense” for us; remember what Socrates says about people coming back down into the cave after having seen the light? You know, that little bit about not being believed and maybe getting beat up?

So before any talk about the epistemic side of kalos, one has to acknowledge that it serves a unique purpose in Plato. Plato is well aware that kalos is about political claims, which include claims about the gods. A kalos kai agathos – a “noble and good” man, a gentleman – wouldn’t want to know more than is needed. So how, exactly, does the epistemic side reveal itself?

3. There are several ways, but they don’t lead to natural philosophy directly. A discussion about generosity, something most would consider noble, does not necessarily break down and turn into one about cosmology. What happens, I think, is that kalos gets transformed into the question of how one leads one’s life. This is what we consider philosophy, but remember: philosophy is something you can be put to death for in ancient Greece.

So again, this is strange and subtle and hard to track. Sometimes, the word’s meanings are intentionally split off from each other. In Xenophon’s Memorabilia, the sections I’m writing on use “kalos” almost exclusively as noble or fine. “Beauty” is strictly a secondary consideration, as Socrates is talking to military leaders and politicians about civic affairs. Only later does Socrates encounter a very beautiful woman, and kalos becomes beautiful, but at the loss of noble overtones. All of those chapters, I should say, are about how one leads one’s life.

In Plato, the discussion of kalos I can think of depends on a heck of a balancing act. I’m going to speculate and see what happens. One can start with the question of what “the beautiful” means for our trying to know. I’m thinking of something like Benardete’s Phaedrus commentary, which I know I’ll mangle. What I can get from it is that knowing is tied in with desire, but it isn’t as simple as “we lust after knowledge.” Most of us don’t; the parallel is more important for understanding how both work. What’s relevant for our present blogpost: when you fall in love, you want to explain to the beloved why you love them and have them agree. In other words: you want the beloved to fall in love with the image you have of them, and this unites you two in love. There are obviously a million catches here, not the least of which that you and the beloved both change not just during but because of this process. You put why you love in speech; your “first sight” changes and evolves. The beloved sees the speech or images you put forth and agrees or disagrees on his/her terms, however s/he is seeing. It looks like knowing each other is hopeless, but again, this isn’t about knowledge strictly. The problem of knowing parallels this.

Most people try to know things and also strive for things besides knowledge. Yeah, these are two vastly different things that sometimes correspond but can also diverge significantly. Think about how crazy overachievers are in high school, doing things like “science club” and “volleyball” back to back. It doesn’t add up at all except in the sense of going to a (noble and good) college. We need something to reconcile the knowing and striving: we do both and we somehow consider this sane behavior, when we should know better to start. The answer is “the beautiful.” Maybe: mind wants to see it, soul wants to be it, eros wants to apprehend it. But the beautiful isn’t the Forms necessarily. It’s more a construct created from the result of being a lover described above. It’s in flux and is anything but simple for a serious knower.


Benardete, Seth. “Socrates and Plato: The Dialectics of Eros” in The Archaeology of the Soul. St. Augustine’s Press, 2012

Sartwell, Crispin. Six Names of Beauty. Routledge, 2004.

Xenophon, “On the Cavalry Commander”

With thanks to Jonathan Culp

Xenophon, “On the Cavalry Commander”

On the surface, this is an exceedingly practical text. Xenophon tells us to make sure the horses in service don’t have bad legs, that the men can mount their horses, etc. There is a catch: in Memorabilia III.3, Socrates has an interlocutor who is an elected cavalry commander. Xenophon declares that he knows the presented conversation happened. This is not a claim he makes about many of his chapters. Socrates gives much of the exact same advice written in the first book of On the Cavalry Commander to the interlocutor, who comes off as extremely ignorant. As it stands, I’m developing an argument that Socrates’ practical advice in III.3 is actually about nobility and the soul. I suspect there is less truly about horses in both writings and a lot more about philosophy and human nature, some kind of direct hint about how Socrates educated Xenophon directly.

However, there is an enormous difference between Xenophon in On the Cavalry Commander and Socrates in Memorabilia III.3 that is revealed by the opening. Socrates never mentions gods or piety in giving the commander advice. He focuses on provision, training, motivation and obedience for horses and men alike. But Xenophon opens his treatise such:

The first duty is to sacrifice to the gods and pray them to grant you the thoughts, words and deeds likely to render your command most pleasing to the gods and to bring yourself, your friends and your city the fullest measure of affection and glory and advantage (Cavalry Commander 1.1).

Xenophon is not shy about repeatedly mentioning the service the commander owes to the gods. Is Xenophon more pious than Socrates? Hardly – the morality of this passage is extremely questionable. In return for giving the gods control over your thoughts, you get affection, glory and advantage. This is an attempt to bribe the gods. The “thoughts, words and deeds” that matter the most bring success, not justice or living within one’s means (contrast with: Mem. I.1.19). It is worth noting that Xenophon talks about the gods so much in his little treatise that he apologizes for it later (Cav. 9.8).

The full significance of piety in the treatise requires one to see competing claims about divinity. Xenophon is abundantly clear about the cavalry commander’s perspective. The other opinion comes about a roundabout way, as the figure of Socrates is hinted at. Xenophon’s practical advice is never just that. To take perhaps the most important example: it is sensible advice that one who wants a horse’s feet to be stronger will have it stand on large stones outside of the stable (they didn’t have horseshoes), making that horse as a matter of habit get used to the hardness (I.16). Xenophon gives a hint that this advice is central to the plan of his work, as he tells the reader that if he tries this, he will “believe in the rest of my rules.”

This passage reminds of Socrates’ hardened bare feet, one aspect of his disdain for wealth and his own continence (cf. Mem I.2.5). It only reminds, as we can only speculate. Much later in the treatise, Xenophon discusses how a thoroughly superior cavalry unit would come about, one that would make one’s opponents look like amateurs. The cavalry that will almost literally fly in difficult situations and over rough terrain – Xenophon says they will be like “birds to beasts,” the “sound from the lame” – that cavalry is trained and has hardened feet (Cav. 8.2-3). He goes further, saying that equestrian exercises are no work at all, for they are the activities where man comes closest to flight (8.6). If one is still not convinced of the value of cavalry, there is this: through war, states get happiness from the gods; no other competition among men is like it (8.7).

Our speculation is beginning to see the outline of a pattern. Men compete not just to be better than other men. They are trying to make claims over other men, trying to show that what other men could not do they can do. In other words: man is the species that is emphatically not content with being man. (One can argue that the text most Greeks know is Homer. A figure like Achilles cannot simply be ignored when reading Plato and Xenophon.) Xenophon is quietly pushing the idea that a superior warrior is near godlike while overtly pushing a more conventional piety. Not to make a bad pun, but to stay grounded, we have to try not to think about a lot of training making someone look like they can fly. We’re going to have to wonder why someone with rather tough soles would choose to stay in the city. The answer, I think, lies in an allusion near the end of the treatise. The gods, who know all things, give warnings through a variety of means; a commander must do his best to take them seriously (9.9). Socrates had the same warnings (Mem I.1.3). To a degree, to want the power of a god is to deny oneself direct access to divine knowledge. Why would someone truly godlike compete?

On Philosophy and Religion

1. On the one hand, philosophy has nothing to do with religion. One can speculate about the cosmos without coming anywhere near a moral teaching. One can have radical political views from what might be considered philosophic insights – you know, much like every other person – and find one’s views or way of life challenged more by comedy or mass media than anything else.

And yet, the tension between philosophy and revelation is twofold. First, some who think a lot about revealed religion consider philosophy its greatest alternative or threat. But the second tension is far more interesting, far more curious. Benardete has a line in his “Strauss on Plato” essay where he talks about Strauss’ reading of Alfarabi. It seems that for Alfarabi this held true: to bring philosophy into a world that did not have the slightest clue about it was also to bring back the “true form” of revelation.

I’ve been wondering about this a lot lately. For me, the problem starts at the level of the obvious. There’s a difference between a culture that purports to be moral and being moral or religious. Everyone knows this – the difference is most manifest in those who kill for their culture or religion and those who feel less threatened, who see grace as a more or less private thing. The difference is huge: we’re talking about incredible acts of savagery, ignorance and bigotry on the one hand and people either embracing ecumenism or a “live and let live” line of thought on the other. It is tempting to say that one set of people is more philosophic and the other less so.

But that line of reasoning is a trap: no matter what, we’re in a debate situated within religion, and philosophy is a hopelessly unclear concept except for some political notion of tolerance. There’s no explanation about how the same thing can create a violent “us vs. them” mentality and at the same time be thought the bearer of universal peace. And I mean “thing” – religion, at this point in the inquiry, is also hopelessly unclear thing. It seems to be either obedience to or love of standards and laws or the mantic interpretation of such laws, the spirit of the law (“what is there but to do justice and walk humbly with one’s God”). To say there’s a bit of a tension regarding what constitutes religion would be a gross understatement.

2. So let’s try the inquiry again and shift some categories around. Forget religion for a second. It is clear people have to fight and die to protect a given society and that they have to believe what they fight and die for is important. Very well. To some degree, we can talk about religious/political phenomena as an unleashing or cultivation of willpower. It’s important, maybe more important than having citizens that are tolerant and peaceable. As wonderful as they can be, the question of survival is pressing, perhaps most pressing when unseen.

None of this gives us the “true form” of revelation. What it does, though, is link the public form with utility for society, as we see in the above paragraph. That leaves the question of what exactly is going on with those who might be considered more passive about religion. Certainly it is the case some zealots will see weakness where others see strength. Can we say those who are more peaceable are just protecting their own interest? That the only thing at play is a private notion of utility?

Maybe, but that’s horribly cynical and unfair to those who are not zealots. And we just defended zealots – for all their savagery, we admit, they might be willing to sacrifice for a common good. So what exactly is the defense of those who are a bit quieter about their faith? That they are the true adherents, citizens of another world?

It isn’t clear what exactly their virtue is in religious terms, even after the centrality of the Beatitudes. We see their humaneness, but religion at times marks that as more or less valuable. Their trueness to the faith is seen by God and God alone. And as noted above, we can’t really call them “philosophic.” They don’t see themselves that way, and we can’t assume they are open to the radical sort of questioning that constitutes a love of wisdom (and is, to be fair, antagonistic to love of humanity at times).

3. Whatever the “true form” of revelation is, it has to do with the private more than the public. The political things and common opinions are worked through, in a sense, to see what is left. There are two things on my mind – I’m sure, if you press the issue, that they do not add up – as I talk about this. First, the famous “big letters/small letters” thing from the Republic. If you looked for justice in the city, wouldn’t it be written on it in big letters? And wouldn’t what is written on it be the exact same thing, writ small, on our souls? It sounds preposterous, but Socrates is more right than one thinks. What he’s pointing to is that the city is knowable morally. When we say “all men are created equal,” we posit a basis for justice that has literally dictated American history. To a large degree, it has dictated our private responses to things and even how we feel. Of course, the small problem exists that it is not clear anything like “all men are created equal” is written on any of our souls. The problem of what justice is, what the best life is, is still outstanding no matter how knowable the city (or where we live) is. The main thing to be gained from the metaphor is that the public things have an indirect value in illuminating the private.

But. There’s always one of these, and this one is way more complicated to discuss. I was reading Christopher Bruell’s thoughtful and provocative essay on Xenophon in the History of Political Philosophy (can you tell I recommend it?). Now that I’ve been working on Xenophon for years, I have notes on each sentence of it – he’s made me think that much more about it all. One of the best things the essay does is show how Socrates shows up directly and indirectly in Xenophon’s corpus, including the works that are non-Socratic. This is not insignificant; in the Cyropaedia, at least one teacher is mentioned who sounds like Socrates (and is put to death for pulling a kid away from his father). The tyrant Croesus is mentioned as one who challenged the truth of Apollo’s prophecy, incurring his wrath. The references in other works go beyond a joking touch. The Hellenica is where we see Socrates stand for the law against mob anger. We know what price he paid for that. When one considers that Xenophon himself retired from public life to sit and write, thinking through yet again what things in his life meant, it is incredible Socrates shows up so much. My own thought is that pagan philosophy did conceive of another world, but it was much less grand than what revealed religion proposes. Socrates and the problems he posed live in thought, live in the questions of how one is living one’s life, for what end, what is achievable. For all these questions, you need all the knowledge in the world and none at all. You need this world, experience, to speak. That requires the life of the mind, and to a much lesser degree, philosophic literature. Then there is the claim that there is a book which has all the answers, period. I don’t want to be uncharitable, though, or unfair. The English Thomist Richard Hooker saw a degrading of Scripture in using it to validate or invalidate every trivial decision. The perfection of Scripture was relative to its supernatural purpose. I don’t know that I’d say Richard Hooker was a philosopher, but he was a decent human being, and I’d certainly like that much.


Bruell, Christopher. “Xenophon” in History of Political Philosophy, 3rd Edition. ed. Strauss/Cropsey. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. 90-114.

Forrester, Duncan. “Richard Hooker” in History of Political Philosophy, 3rd Edition. ed. Strauss/Cropsey. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. 361.

Experience and Knowledge – Encounters and Reflections: Conversations with Seth Benardete, p. 197

The passage below, from Encounters and Reflections: Conversations with Seth Benardete p. 197, is something I’ve been thinking about the last week or so. It needs quite a bit of context. Benardete talks about how he met a mathematician at a party who thought mathematics was his professional life, but wasn’t feeling particularly fulfilled by it. So the mathematician went ahead and became this incredible expert in Japanese music.

The questions that arise are of identity, being and education. Regarding the last, is there something about the character of knowing that has changed from ancient philosophy to modern philosophy? I like to say that the whole issue of Socrates is this: in dying, he was as good as his word. There’s something about knowledge which necessitates self-knowledge and perhaps vice versa. It informs the being one is, the nature one has. I think that’s the context you need for the passage below. Descartes, of course, is an example of “modern” philosophy:

Seth [Benardete]: This is connected, I think, with the whole issue of experience and teaching.

Michael [Davis]: How do you mean?

Seth: The character of teaching, à la Descartes, is to speed up the process of understanding or to give the impression that you can speed it up.

Robert [Berman]: You can leapfrog.

Seth: Somebody forms himself on the basis of the life he has lived, then he transmits it. But the life is not transmitted, only the rubrics, not grounded -

Robert: – in the experience that gave way to them to begin with.

Seth: Right.

Rather than knowing, the passage is concerned with teaching. Teaching leads back to a contention about knowledge. “The process of understanding” can be sped up or be made to look like it can be sped up. The problem with the fantastic promise of method is that experience seems to be essential to our knowledge. All of us know that to memorize a fact for school feels arbitrary and forced until one sees that fact play out on the news or in the real world. And that’s knowledge as didactic.

If we start talking about the character of understanding as it relates to discovering for oneself, then things get much weirder. Benardete speaks of somebody forming himself “on the basis of the life he has lived.” This is moral knowledge resulting in guidelines, advice, propositions. One can challenge whether this is knowledge strictly. I think what’s interesting is hearing from people who have made scientific discoveries and had “eureka” moments. I can’t imagine there is some strict reason/passion separation at work, where the achievement of knowledge is completely separable from the feelings one has about it or a number of other propositions one has related to the way one thinks. To sit and solve a problem of some magnitude requires clearing up one’s own thought, one’s own mental cobwebs, and discovering how best to think for oneself.

That “how best to think,” along with the certainty of scientific knowledge, has led some to think that mind is universal, so much so it is beyond mankind, beyond all mere physical phenomena. I’m not so sure: I’m (obviously) thinking more that real discovery is going to involve some degree of self-discovery. That doesn’t mean there’s some optimal way to think or not think, but rather indicates that some sort of striving is essential to knowledge, a striving that isn’t quite brute calculation. A body of knowledge, on this thought, only makes sense if there are knowers.

This all might seem obvious, but any time one wants to propose something about how we know or who we are there are bound to be complications. Later in the discussion Benardete is asked how he is so sure the issue is experience. Benardete relates an anecdote about Leo Strauss, how Strauss met a Polish woman and remarked how she had a depth American women her age didn’t have. For a second, I thought the issue was “sure, someone who watched their country and the people around them get obliterated twice by the Germans and Russians in a matter of few years would display a certain depth.” But it may be possible to go through the horrors of war, the trauma of living under bad or failed ideologies, see one’s tradition and identity challenged to the point of being annihilated and learn absolutely nothing.

The issue is experience because having experience isn’t the be all-and-end all for knowledge. The question is closer to how you want your experience to be a guide, a thing of value. Even that isn’t putting it quite right, because I remember being preached to recently by this 18 year old who had found God who I really wanted to shut up. The Polish woman, assuming she’s been through a lot, probably displayed a moral maturity by being less concerned with acquisition and achievement and more concerned with something else. I’m tempted to say that is something like “how things are valuable,” but I’m not sure. I will say this: a passage from Heidegger’s “What is Metaphysics?” has stayed with me, the one where he speaks of great anxiety and the beings around us receding as a consequence. I’m not sold on the metaphor (I don’t know that it is a metaphor, but that’s another story), but I wonder about having almost nothing left. If one were lucky, would she be guessing at the value of the smallest things in slow, deliberate ways to see if the world made a lick of sense?


Benardete, Seth. Encounters and Reflections: Conversations with Seth Benardete. ed. Ronna Burger. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2002.

Notes on a Lecture of Susan D. Collins – “E Pluribus Unum: Citizens, Friends, and Free Thinkers in the Ancient City”

These are my notes; feedback appreciated, I did what I could to be clear. You can watch the original lecture here. Susan Collins teaches at the University of Houston and is the co-author of a translation of Aristotle’s Ethics. If you’re interested, an interview with her.

Can ancient thought guide current political practice? There are several complications at the start of the inquiry. For example, illiberal aspects of the past: slavery was commonplace in Classical Greece and Rome. Further, our world is so, so different that it is hard to see how two thousand year old theories could be applicable. The use of an iphone can invalidate a restaurant review made 5 minutes earlier. Doesn’t politics require some sense of stability? A continual flux of information and opinion seems overwhelming for concepts made for a world where people would lose all hope in the midst of battle because of an eclipse.

So why not leave the ancient city behind? Well, it emphasizes aspects of political life we tend to neglect. Unity is one of those. Modern democracy nowadays tends to place greater emphasis on a libertine freedom centered around the individual. There are good reasons for this, of course, but older thought may prove useful for finding a way to unity and pride in that unity which involves respect for the rights of all. Aristotle talks about a city working together for an end, for the sake of the good. Our political life doesn’t really allow for reflection on what it means to live well. Rather, it seems to emphasize simply living.

The contrast brings us to the more specific concerns of the ancient city. Family looms large in the Republic, though it is treated somewhat ironically there. Laws are a more fundamental concern for ancient thought generally, as they point to the development of virtues which shape citizens a particular way. The city has a “wholeness and rootedness” that takes man’s sociability seriously; not all law points to mechanism or artifice, creating incentives or disincentives for behavior. However, an overemphasis on law or family can make conventionality in the guise of tradition seem like it only speaks to the higher aspects of humanity. It might become hard to guard against a certain nostalgia for generations past.

Still, there are more “realistic” dimensions of the ancient city, ones that remind of modern concerns such as security. The prime example: the ancient city takes conflict seriously. Conflict is not just one city going to war with different cities, but the problem of many seeking the good within the city itself. Various associations form within the city, i.e. families, where people seek the good for themselves and their allies. Aristotle speaks of an “equal exchange of evils” where various associations and communities composing the city continually demonstrate the harshness of civic life. Hierarchy, force exerted from the more authoritative part of the city, is not just a basic necessity but perhaps even integral to whatever freedom is enjoyed in everyday life.

These more realistic dimensions, when considered in the context of what seem to be idealistic notions, raise fundamental questions. What does it mean to live in common? To have a shared life? What could any of this have to do with force?

It helps to treat ancient political philosophy as somewhat practical, as continuous with problems raised in ancient history that Plato and Aristotle were very familiar with. Herodotus gives us story after story about different peoples with different customs. His “inquiry” – the word we translate as history – focuses on them as they are all about to be conquered by the Persians. It seems some notion of Greek freedom and prudence is opposed to this imperialism. Thucydides, however, starts from the problem of Greek empire. People are far less important in his account than the destruction of war and fatal acts.

Thus, we can see flux and conflict as an “intellectual frame” for the ancient city. For example, consider the first book of the Republic: religion, foreigners, sophists, tyranny and force are all brought up to open a book that will give us an ideal city of sorts. The dialogue Charmides has Socrates back from service at the siege at Potidea, dealing with half-baked notions of philosophy from Critias and Charmides, who are associates of his and wannabe tyrants. Aristotle tells us in the Politics that without law and justice, man becomes the worst of the animals. He must have virtue.

Now Aristotle gives us a distinctively political basis for virtue. He lays heavy emphasis on reciprocity, as evidenced by the discussion of “the equal exchange of evils” above and the famous “ruling and being ruled in turn” of the opening of the Politics. But he also talks about the need to exchange goods for community, the fullness and full implications of “a common way of life.”

This brings us to an “ancient realism,” where themes of flux and force and also community reside. One has to wonder about what true community could be in the face of so much conflict. The “architectonic power” of ancient community sees freedom as stemming from authority. The “closed” society, local and strictly moral as opposed to universal and tolerant, is where law shapes mores and gives a way of life. Law requires reverence and piety.

But the establishment of a pious authority obviously does not make anyone free on its own. Ancient realism wonders how the city encompasses community, family, friends; the question of nature, however, emerges as one moves back to the individual and asks about the ends of the city. A diversity of political communities are comprehended by law. In the city, more natural communities are united by law; friendship matters at least as much as having an armed camp. Aristotle at times speaks of philosophy in the same breath as gambling and exercise. It seems like as one gets a friendlier, better city united by law, philosophy is more susceptible to being attacked by it. Why does anyone need knowledge?

Philosophy doesn’t despair. The activity of philosophy is what enabled the more natural basis for the city to be brought forth. The freedom that is philosophy stays somewhat hidden, but is ever present. As long as people can see conflict and disagreement as natural and work with it politically, they can see the higher possibility philosophy represents – that something positive or meaningful about our nature might be understood.

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