Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.11.37 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.11.37

Timothy W. Burns (ed.), Brill's Companion to Leo Strauss' Writings on Classical Political Thought. Brill's companions to classical reception, 4.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2015.  Pp. xiii, 480.  ISBN 9789004243354.  $218.00.  


Reviewed by John Bloxham, University of Nottingham (J.A.Bloxham@Open.ac.uk)

Table of Contents
[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

The last two decades have witnessed a steady increase in work devoted to the polarizing figure of Leo Strauss (1899–1973). Despite, however, Strauss’s turn to antiquity forming the core of his thought, this is the first major study focused entirely on that engagement. This neglect may be due in part to the tendency of classicists not to take Strauss seriously, either because they view his work as obscure and anachronistic; or, as some of this volume’s contributors maintain, because classicists have read his classically themed works as bad commentaries rather than philosophical investigations in their own right. The widely differing evaluations of Strauss and the political repercussions of his ideas suggest that a work illuminating the classical aspect of his thought would be valuable.

Burns’ Introduction outlines Strauss’s focus on confronting the “modern crisis”, by which he meant moderns’ loss of faith in reason. For Strauss, both pre-Socratic ancients and post-enlightenment moderns embraced relativism when they recognized the limits of reason; however, ancient philosophy was saved by Socrates. Instead of explaining this Socratic solution, Burns segues into the assertion that philosophy must maintain its distance from society. Since philosophy is too challenging for most people to understand, philosophers must write esoterically (3). The implication is that Socrates had not reasoned away relativism; he had merely concealed it from non-philosophers. In the Straussian framework, ancient Socratic literature was composed of a superficially conventional exterior and a radically sceptical interior, decipherable only by philosophical readers alert to subtle hints, gaps and intentional errors. An obvious question is whether Strauss was himself an esoteric writer. One justification for esoteric writing is that the sceptical writer fears persecution for openly questioning society’s cherished dogmas; however, Strauss spent much of his career living and working in the liberal USA. The less obvious justification is to protect society. Scepticism is a solvent that destroys society’s binding glue. Accordingly, for Strauss, “There are basic truths which would not be pronounced in public by any decent man, because they would do harm to many people.”1 Burns hints at Strauss’s esotericism and acknowledges that he could be “elusive, suggestive, and sometimes downright cryptic” (27-8). He claims that the aim of the present volume is to make Strauss’s writings “more accessible” (28) and, if Strauss was an esoteric writer, who better than his fellow Straussians to shed light on his thought?

Following the Introduction, there are twenty-one chapters divided into seven unequally weighted sections. Part 1 contains three chapters on Strauss’ engagement with pre-Socratic thought; Part 2 includes a further three chapters on classical political philosophy as a whole; Part 3 is a single chapter on Strauss’s stimulating but overlooked reading of Aristophanes; Part 4 has seven chapters on Strauss’s readings of Xenophon; Part 5 comprises six chapters on Strauss and Plato; and Part 6 looks, in its final chapter, at Strauss and Aristotle. The weighting given to different thinkers is largely dictated by Strauss’s interests and it is appropriate that the largest section is assigned to Xenophon, on whom Strauss focused more than any other author.

Chapter 1 is representative of a tension within the volume between the professed goal of making Strauss more accessible and some contributors’ apparent reluctance to reveal too much. McBrayer outlines Strauss’s discussion of nomos (convention) and physis (nature) in terms of justice, essentially summarizing Strauss’s argument in Natural Right and History. Strauss began that work with an appeal to the idea of natural right; as McBrayer notes, however, “After having given a convincing account of the conventionalist argument, Strauss leaves its attack on natural right unrefuted” (41-2). A reader might anticipate that McBrayer would elucidate this gap, but instead he simply suggests that Strauss found the conventionalist argument problematic. In fact, McBrayer does not fill in any of Strauss’s puzzling gaps. This frustrating and unhelpful tendency to paraphrase Strauss without really clarifying his obscurities is especially pronounced in Chapters 3, 5, 6, 7, 10, 12, 14, 15 and 20. The “Classical Political Philosophy” section also appears redundant, since the entire volume is dedicated to Strauss’s engagement with classical political philosophy. If this segment had included overarching essays on Strauss’s work this would not be a problem; however, it actually consists of further detailed commentaries.

The volume does have important strengths. Chapter 2, Orwin on Thucydides, is illuminating. Orwin is himself an incisive writer on Thucydides, and he concentrates on what Strauss’s readings tell us about Thucydides, rather than what they tell us about Strauss’s own theoretical project. Although it also deals with two of Strauss’s lesser known Thucydidean works, the spotlight is on his better known essay in The City and Man. Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War contains perplexing contradictions, for which various interpretations have been offered. According to Orwin, Strauss believed that these inconsistencies resulted from Thucydides’ conscious decision to provide different perspectives (in a similar if more subtle way to the speeches within his work). This chapter will provide a great deal of clarity to anybody following Strauss’s provisional, constantly shifting commentary; however, some recognition of alternative scholarly analyses of Thucydides’ design would have been useful.

Part 4 explores Strauss’s long-running study of Xenophon, whom Strauss called his “special darling.”2 A surprising omission from this section is a chapter dedicated to Strauss’s commentary3 on Xenophon’s Oeconomicus, which Strauss considered Xenophon’s definitive treatment of Socrates. Nevertheless, some of the most stimulating chapters are included in this section. In Chapter 8, Ruderman discusses a 1958 series of lectures Strauss gave in which he defended Socrates from the modern charge that he was a shallow rationalist. Strauss did this “with the aid of the man reputed to be the shallowest of Socratics, Xenophon” (194). The main benefit of this chapter is that it touches upon a number of works in the Socratic corpus, providing more interpretative analysis than the summaries constituting much of the volume. Strauss’s Xenophontic Socrates was not the moralizing bore portrayed on the surface: he did teach his students to look down on the established laws and his piety was largely for show. In Chapter 9, Ruderman examines Strauss’s first work on classical thought, his 1939 article on Xenophon’s Constitution of the Lacedaemonians. Perhaps because Strauss wrote this article early in his career, before his own writing became so opaque, non-Straussians have more fruitfully engaged with this work than with Strauss’s later writings. In Strauss’s apparently straightforward analysis, Xenophon’s work was a satire rather than an encomium of Sparta. According to Ruderman, the sub-text was Strauss’s wish to respond to modern thinkers such as Rousseau, whose Strauss blamed for creating a romanticized Sparta which had inspired totalitarian regimes. Strauss’s case for Xenophontic anti-Spartan individualism was, in 1939, especially timely.

The uneasy relationship between reason and religion was one of Strauss’s central concerns and it is explored in Chapter 13b (sic), where Burns studies the issue of divine justice in the Anabasis. He begins by labelling Xenophon’s piety as the prudent appearance of piety. Xenophon took advantage of his subordinates’ genuine piety to achieve his own, non-pious, aims. This unethical exploitation of religion is one of the main charges levelled at Straussians by their critics; however, according to Burns, this aspect of Xenophon’s approach to religion was only part of the story. For Strauss’s Xenophon, philosophers developed a level of ethical conduct which most people did not have the ability to reach. Accordingly, piety was a tool to encourage similar ethical concerns in non-philosophers.

The section on Plato is interesting, despite the fact that few of these chapters give a clear indication of how ancient thought could really assuage the “modern crisis” Strauss described. Ambler’s discussion of a lecture Strauss gave on the Euthyphro comes closest. For Strauss, the Euthyphro went beyond attempting to define piety and towards illustrating the unbridgeable chasm between religion and philosophy (although philosophy was never mentioned in the dialogue). In weighing up the two outlooks, Strauss contended that Socrates was the standard by which piety should be judged, and, since Socrates was impious, piety was inferior to philosophy. Nonetheless, Ambler describes this interpretation as a “half-truth.” For Strauss, philosophy and religion could reach an “accord.” Ambler leaves unclear what such an accord would entail, although other chapters suggest that philosophy would accept the useful role that piety plays in making justice matter to non-philosophers. In other words, the anti- climactic solution for the modern crisis is that philosophers need to accept the positive role of religion in society and stop undermining its tenets.

Rosano provides a clear exposition of Strauss’s interpretation of the Euthydemus in Chapter 17. According to Strauss, Plato had hinted that this dialogue was connected to the Crito by having Socrates describe his meeting with the two sophists to Crito. For Strauss, the two dialogues were intended to be read as supplementing one another (for example, the Euthydemus shows that Crito struggles with irony, which should lead us to doubt the seriousness of the argument of the laws in the Crito). Both dialogues were designed to appeal to the limited mind of Crito, and the surface teachings therefore need to be questioned. Regardless of other possible weaknesses in Straussian exegesis (and we might wonder if such large assertions should be built upon such small foundations), this careful attention to dramatic context is one of its fortes. In Chapter 19, Lutz, discussing Plato’s Laws, also focuses upon the unbridgeable gap between reason and religion. Whereas the Republic demonstrated the limits of politics, the Laws showed how virtue and philosophy might coexist in an actual city. Unlike Socrates’ interlocutors in the Republic, the two speakers conversing with the Athenian Stranger in the Laws were not potential philosophers. Consequently, the philosophy of the Athenian Stranger had to be concealed. Like any good Straussian, the Athenian Stranger manipulated their piety to reach ethical outcomes that he had himself reached through reason.

The editing is generally of a high standard, although some needless repetition could be removed. The “modern crisis” is explained more than once and, by treating each of Strauss’s commentaries individually, rather than taking a thematic approach, his views on issues such as “piety” are covered with little change of perspective in different chapters. The volume would also benefit from small organizational changes. For example, Chapter 15 on the Minos and Chapter 19 on the Laws make much of the complementarity between the two dialogues, and a reader would gain by reading the chapters consecutively. Despite the large number of typically Straussian gaps, the writing is generally clear and the only indexing error I spotted was that the regularly discussed ‘Heidegger’ is missing from the index.

As I indicated earlier, a work that thoroughly elucidated Strauss’s engagement with ancient thought would be of great value. However, the volume suffers from some significant drawbacks. As I have described above, too many chapters paraphrase Strauss but do not offer interpretative clarity. The volume would also have been greatly strengthened by alternative, dissenting perspectives on Strauss. Instead, the contributors take a uniformly Straussian approach and most of the citations to recent scholarship are to other Straussians. On a similar note, there is little recognition of alternative perspectives on the classical political thought under consideration. For example, Xenophon’s philosophical reputation has undergone a revival among classicists in recent decades. This revival has been influenced by Strauss but also has often contradicted his conclusions. Some reflection on this relationship would have been useful, but it is simply ignored. Despite this criticism, this volume displays Strauss’s provocative originality, his skill in close reading and his nuanced understanding of dramatic context. Although it misses the opportunity to provide a balanced and definitive analysis of Strauss’s turn to classical thought, it remains a welcome handbook to an important and frequently misunderstood thinker.

Table of Contents

Leo Strauss' recovery of classical political philosophy / Timothy W. Burns
On "The origin of the idea of natural right" in natural right and history / Gregory A. McBrayer
Reading thucydides with Leo Strauss / Clifford Orwin
On Leo Strauss' "Notes on Lucretius" / James H. Nichols, Jr
Leo Strauss' "the liberalism of classical political philosophy" / Timothy W. Burns
On "classic natural right" in natural right and history / Devin Stauffer
"On Collingwood's philosophy of history" and "on a new interpretation of Plato's political philosophy" / Jonathan F. Culp
Learning to love Aristophanes : reading Aristophanes with Strauss / Christopher Baldwin
On Leo Strauss's presentation of Xenophon's political philosophy in "the problem of Socrates" / Richard S. Ruderman
"Through the keyhole" : leo strauss' rediscovery of classical political philosophy in Xenophon's constitution of the Lacedaemonians / Richard S. Ruderman
A guide to the study of Leo Strauss' On tyranny / Eric Buzzetti
Socratic rhetoric and political philosophy : Leo Strauss on Xenophon's Symposium / Dustin Gish
Strauss on the memorabilia : Xenophon's Socrates / Amy L. Bonnette
Strauss on Xenophon's Anabasis : the difference between Socrates and Xenophon in Leo Strauss' account of Xenophon's Anabasis / Devin Stauffer
Divine justice in Strauss' Anabasis / Timothy W. Burns
Leo Strauss on the politics of Plato's republic / Linda R. Rabieh
Philosophy and law : on the gravest question in Plato's Minos / Robert Goldberg
An introduction to Strauss' "an untitled lecture on Plato's Euthyphron" / Wayne Ambler
Eristics, protreptics, and (dialectics ): strauss on Plato's Euthydemos / Michael Rosano
Strauss on the apology and crit / John C. Koritansky
The argument and the action of plato's laws / Mark J. Lutz
Aristotle's political science, common sense, and the Socratic tradition in the city and man / Susan D. Collins

Notes:


1.   L. Strauss , Persecution and the Art of Writing, London 1952.
2.   Letter to Jacob Klein, 1939, cited in D. M. Johnson, 'Strauss on Xenophon' in F. Hobden and C. Tuplin (eds.), Xenophon: Ethical Principles and Historical Enquiry (Leiden 2012), 123-59 at 126.
3.   L. Strauss, Xenophon's Socratic Discourse: An Interpretation of the Oeconomicus, South Bend, IN, 1970.

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