Diving into the Classics with Leo Strauss

Leo Strauss died in 1973, but his works live on and so do some of his better students who have become, or became, exceptional scholars in their own right. Strauss is somewhat of a demon to some—especially the partisans of Shadia Drury, a third-rate Canadian political scientist who began the absurd idea that Strauss was somehow an influence over the anti-communist neoconservatives (and the broader New Right of the 1990s) responsible for the Iraq War and America’s military adventurism in the Middle East during the Bush Admiration. She clearly hasn’t read any of Strauss’ works. Many of Strauss’ students, and more nuanced political scientists and political philosophers who have no connection with Strauss, have written demolishing critiques of this leftwing conspiracy theory so I’m not going to do any of that here.

The City and Man is a collection of three lectures turned into essays on Aristotle, Plato, and Thucydides (in that order) which include commentary on other ancient writers of the period in relationship to three of the foremost intellectuals of the ancient world. The three essays are grounded in a treatment of a specific work but expands from there to include commentary on a multiplicity of concerns found not only in these specific texts but within these thinkers as well. The essay on Aristotle deals with his Politics, the essay on Plato covers Republic, and the piece on Thucydides examines the History of the Peloponnesian War.

Strauss’ examination of Aristotle is deeply insightful. It looks at several important themes to Aristotelian thought, but just as important to broader philosophical thought. Unpacked in the shortest of the three essays, Strauss looks at the nature of teleology, eudemonia (happiness), natural right and natural law in Aristotle’s philosophy. Including esoteric (in between the lines commentary over German thinkers like Johann von Herder and Georg Hegel), Strauss unpacks the relationship between happiness, the polis, human nature, and how they are all bound in in Aristotle’s famous statement that “man is by nature a political animal.”

Interweaving concern for the problem of modern political philosophy: the political hedonists of the Enlightenment like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Strauss highlights how much of Aristotle’s political thought and understanding of man is related to the atomized and solitary hedonism of the moderns which destroyed classical conceptions of virtue and excellence—things that Aristotle spent so much time concerned with. In the end, reading Strauss’ essay on Aristotle will undoubtedly change your traditional understanding of Aristotle and whether the virtue that Aristotle examines and extols can be achieved from an Aristotelian framework—this has profound ramifications for Catholics of a Thomist orientation.

The two homerun essays are on Plato and Thucydides. I don’t want to give too much away but, like the shortest essay on Aristotle, the essays on Plato and Thucydides are excellent examples of Strauss’ deep hermeneutic. The issue of esotericism in Strauss is also a cause of controversy. Let me set the record somewhat straight on the matter. There seems to be three aspects to Straussian esoteric hermeneutics. First is Strauss’ assertion that the philosophers had to mask some of their real intentions within their works—this manifests itself as the history of philosophy progresses with later philosophers responding to older philosophers without necessarily citing them which means one needs a good grounding in the history of philosophical thought to really appreciate philosophical dialogue from within the discipline of philosophy itself. Second is Strauss’ own esotericism where he engages with certain thinkers within the text he is writing—for example, I already made mention of him discussing Herder and Hegel in the essay on Aristotle and this is given away (to those with the trained eye) by his use of the term “Volk” when discussing the concept of the nation and community in Aristotle. Natural Right and History is another example where he spends much of the first part of the book discussing the relativism of Martin Heidegger without even mentioning him by name. Third, and this is where reading the essay on Plato is so useful: There is the need to be able to see what is actually right in front of you but for various reasons it’s hard for readers to realize. (This is especially true for those who are dependent upon translations who lack a knowledge of the original language and therefore miss certain key aspects of a text; or those who are less familiar with intertexual references and why they are important to the original writer.)

To this end the essay on Plato is remarkable in exegeting Platonic/Socratic irony within the dialogue. Strauss’ witty and funny commentary over the dialectic between Socrates and Thrasymachus is eye-opening; yet when you reread the Republic with having read Strauss you become embarrassed as to how you never saw what Strauss so clearly sees as unfolding right before our eyes! In fact, I drew heavily from Strauss on a published essay examining Plato’s Republic purely on Plato’s use of irony, satire, imagery, and descent-ascent structure of the ten books (beginning on the surface and descending to “hell” or the Cave, and then ascending to the city of light in Book X come the Myth of Er). Note, here: Strauss is actually incredibly funny, that is, academically geeky, with his own commentary interspliced into his academic exegesis.

Highlighting just this part of Strauss’ great examination of Plato (and Socrates), everyone knows that Thrasymachus has the “savage thesis” of justice. And most know that Thrasymachus’ name means fierce animal/warrior. But Strauss pays special attention to how Plato’s irony comes out from these basic facts. Thrasymachus is described as an animal who hurls himself from the side of the road to ambush Socrates and Polemarchus—befitting an individual as barbaric as Thrasymachus is. Examining the conversation between the two Strauss highlights the eloquence of Socrates’ speech in comparison to the short and ineloquent speech of the wild man (Thrasymachus). There’s so much insight to be had in reading Strauss’ magnificent essay on Plato’s Republic.

But the real prize is Strauss’ essay on Thucydides. More recent scholars, like Donald Kagan, have also written reevaluations of Thucydides. Strauss rejects the conventional view that Thucydides is the first “objective” or “scientific” historian. Instead, Strauss sees Thucydides as a partisan philosopher, but a partisan philosopher for the first rate, a magnificent thinker who doesn’t have an equal until Machiavelli.

Strauss’ careful reading of Thucydides shows his work for what it really is, perhaps the densest and most remarkable work of antiquity—and a deeply modern one at that. Drawing on Thucydides’ geopolitical philosophy and realization that politics is about power dialectics, Strauss highlights how Athens wanted the war with Sparta so as to consummate its exceptional empire.

Americans, and to some extent Britons, ought to read Strauss’ essay on Thucydides alone to see parallels between Anglo-exceptionalism and how closely it mirrors the Athenian exceptionalism on propagandist display in Pericles’ “Funeral Oration.”

Strauss highlights the depth of Thucydides’ thinking. Thucydides, Strauss implies, wrote the History not as an account of objective history but to work out major philosophical themes and how they came to an impasse between Athens and Sparta. What is the difference between just (dikaioi) and necessary (anankaion)? What is the relationship between right and compulsion, which are outgrowths of examining the question of just and necessary. Why was Athens “in the right”? What is the danger of universalism—which was manifested in the city of Athens, the city of “daring, progress, and the arts”? Here, had Drury actually read Strauss she would have realized that Strauss was warning against the universalism that has defined American liberalism since the end of the Second World War: The attempt to socially engineer the universal world order of liberty, equality, and democracy—the very arguments of the Athenians which plunged classical Greece into three decades of war and left her vulnerable to conquest by the Macedonians decades later.

The Peloponnesian War was, in many ways, a contest between intimate particularism (Sparta) against encroaching universalism (Athens). Sparta was the “backward” and “traditional” society that had formed its alliance for the purpose of self-defense. Athens was the progressive and advancing society that favored enterprise, daring, and the arts. Athens was the superior power materially but lost because of overreach and overconfidence (the expedition to Sicily). Strauss’ analysis of Thucydides is prescient and, in some ways, prophetic. His reading of Thucydides is deeply relevant to our 21st century and those wondering what went wrong after the fall of the Soviet Union and America’s so-called “wars for the greater Middle East.” Thucydides stands on a level all his own; for those familiar with other works by Strauss, I have no doubt Strauss saw Thucydides on equal footing with Machiavelli for the most real, cunning, and “modern” of thinkers. Reading Strauss’ essay on Thucydides has changed my appreciation for that Greek historian, er, philosopher! Thucydides is an incredible thinker, and Strauss illuminates his depth nicely for readers ready to take a plunge into the depth of Thucydides’ work and mind all at once.

Anyone interested in classical political theory and classical philosophy should pick up this slim compendium of essays on three thinkers who remain with us today. Strauss may be dead, and many may not have the opportunity to study with “Straussians,” but that doesn’t mean Strauss can’t still be your teacher through the wealth of works and insights he left behind. The City and Man is the book to read of Strauss after Natural Right and History. Everything else is just icing on the cake. The essay on Thucydides, which is roughly half of the book, is worth the price and read alone.

 

The City and Man
Leo Strauss
Chicago: University of Chicago, 1964; 1978; 254pp.

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