Although his name and his disciples have dominated American political theory for the past thirty years and have even influenced American politics, Leo Strauss has remained somewhat of an enigma to specialists and generalists alike. Was he the classical philosopher who argued that democracy as practiced by the fifth-century Greeks was the highest form of civilization, the political thinker whose doctrine of natural right has influenced the thinking of the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration, or a closet Nietzschean engaged in a clandestine project of self-deification? Given the number of self-proclaimed “Straussians” who occupy the positions of political and intellectual power in this country — Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol, Harvey Mansfield, and the late Allan Bloom — the answer to the question is not merely an academic one but one that has serious and lasting political repercussions.
On the surface, Strauss seems to have little to say about contemporary politics, as one glances at some of titles of his works: Natural Right and History, On Tyranny, Socrates and Aristophanes, and Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy. But after reading his works more closely, one sees that Strauss imparts a political vision of an aristocratic class of gentlemen who will govern in the spirit of the philosopher. Because, as Strauss writes in Persecution and the Art of Writing, the philosopher only “defends the interest of philosophy,” the many, the demos, resent this philosophical caste who appear to know what is best for them in “defending the highest interests of mankind.” The solution to this problem is to have a rule of law administered by gentlemen who are not philosophers but “a political reflection, or imitation, of the wise man.” This aristocratic class will insert philosophy, as much as the demos will allow, into the politics of the state.
But is Strauss really the aristocratic crank who supports the alliance between philosophers and gentlemen in advancing “the highest interests of mankind”? According to James Rhodes in Eros, Wisdom, and Silence, to understand Strauss’ true intentions we must first look at his teaching about esoteric and exoteric writings. The former is the “true” teachings of philosophers which can only be deciphered by reading “in between” the lines of their works; the latter is the political lip-service paid to the demos so as to avoid public persecution of the kind that Socrates and other philosophers had. The “political” aspect of political philosophy therefore is the use of silence, irony, and other rhetorical devices to mislead the demos regarding the true, esoteric teachings of the philosopher.
For example, Strauss’s crucial comment in The City and Man that “some great writers might have stated certain important truths quite openly by using as mouthpiece some disreputable character” could be used in an “esoteric” interpretation of Plato’s Republic. It is possible that a sophist like Thrasymachus could be the true “mouthpiece” of Plato’s important truth. In fact, Strauss’ declaration that Thrasymachus’ definition of justice as “the advantage of the stronger,” when it is cast in the form of legal positivism, “is the most obvious, the most natural thesis regarding justice” would seem to confirm this interpretation. Within this context, Strauss’ odd references to Nietzsche as a Platonist make more sense. Since for Nietzsche existence is inherently absurd, one must resort to an esoteric “noble lie” to divert attention from the abyss. With this understanding, Strauss’ doctrine of natural right can be understood as purely hypocritical with respect to both the demos and the aristocratic gentlemen whereby they accept the exoteric “truths” of natural right from the philosopher who knows better.
For Rhodes, Strauss’ interpretation of Plato, especially his use of silence and irony in the dialogues, stands in direct contrast with Eric Voegelin’s. According to Voegelin, Plato’s principled refusal to speak about the “most important things,” as stated in the Seventh Letter, arises because language is unable to capture and convey the essence of reality. Unlike Strauss, who envisages silence and irony as political protection for the philosopher who pretends to be unwise, Voegelin sees “Platonic irony as a function of man’s inability to enjoy the highest wisdom.” Following Augustine, Voegelin rejects an Archimedean point of view from which we can survey the entire world; rather, we are limited in our understanding of the cosmos because we are participants within it. This participatory mode of consciousness is one where we experience the world and articulate it in symbolic forms, like language. We should therefore recognize that language only points towards one’s experience and is not the experience itself.
But to say that we have a blind spot at our self-knowledge does not say we cannot have knowledge at all. For Rhodes, we are able to arrive at a science about the essence of a thing, as Plato asserts in the Seventh Letter. We are able to know a thing’s name, definition, image, and a science about its essence. However, we are unable to grasp the essence of the thing itself. The four steps towards knowledge cannot produce perfect knowledge, the fifth step, due to the inherent limitations of language. This especially true for writing, as Socrates argues in the Phaedrus. Writing does not encapsulate the truth about the just, beautiful, and good, because once these things are written, it is “tossed about, alike, among those who understand and those who have no business with it, and it knows not to whom to speak or not to speak.” Because the experience of justice, beauty, and the good cannot be transmitted like empirical data, as Strauss would seem to suggest, but only pointed to by language, written words are liable to misinterpretation and abuse. They are unable to defend themselves, opening the door to the triumphs of injustice.
Speech is an improvement over written words because it does more than remind a person of his past experiences. It participates in psychagogia, the leading of souls, so people can experience the truths of justice, beauty, and the good for themselves. As Rhodes makes clear in his examination of the Symposium, Phaedrus, and Seventh Letter, speech is able to tailor itself to the particular souls in question, knowing when to be silent and ironic. Depending whether a person is receptive to the experience of the good, Socrates knows when he should speak and when he should be silent, whereas written words are static in their pronouncements. Philosophy, as so conceived, is not the hoarding of some secret knowledge among a cabal of gnostics but the concrete, pedagogical pursuit of turning around an entire person’s perspective on life — the periagoge — in the hope he will experience the just, beautiful, and good for himself.
If the most important things — like wisdom, eros, and even the divine itself — are ultimately mystical and ineffable, Plato’s practice of keeping silent about the nature of these things is understandable. Our experience of them can only inadequately be translated into a language that is liable to sophistic misreading and misinterpretation. Postmodern thinkers have hammered this same point about the gap between language and the experience of reality in their works. Although Rhodes does a magnificent job of reviewing the secondary literature on Plato, he has failed to mention postmodern hermeneutics in his analysis, an absence that seems all the more striking when we recall the influence of Plato’s thought on the works of thinkers like Heidegger and Derrida. Ultimately the neglect of postmodern thought makes little impact upon the comparison of the Straussian and Voegelinan interpretations of Plato, but the incorporation of someone like Heidegger would have added a new dimension for Rhodes to explore the relationship between language and experience in our understanding of Plato.
Such an inclusion of postmodern hermeneutics into the analysis would raise questions as to which experience should be privileged and by what criteria. Is the experience of Heidegger’s Dasein the equivalent of Plato’s experience of illumination described as flashes of lightning in the Seventh Letter ? I suspect that Rhodes, like all mystic philosophers, eventually would provide the Aristotelian answer: the spoudaios, the spiritually and intellectually mature man, is the one who knows which experiences should be privileged. But if we have to resort to an appeal to experiential authority — and perhaps we have to as a limitation of the human condition — what does this say about the role of reason and the rule of politics? Simply put, can there be a science of mystical and ineffable experiences amendable to rational analysis?
For Rhodes’ Socrates, a limited science is possible. We are able to acquire the name, definition, image, and inadequate knowledge of these things, but to know the essence of these things themselves is impossible. Not surprisingly, Plato presents Socrates discussing eros and wisdom by its name, definition, image, and science. However, Socrates never speaks about the essence of eros or wisdom in his dialogues, for knowledge of the essence of reality itself is, at best, a flash of lightning in one’s soul that quickly disappears. It is this experiential moment of intuitively understanding the just, beautiful, and good that becomes articulated in symbols like wisdom and eros. But this experience of the good can become derailed into a tyrannical will to power of self-deification, or what Rhodes calls “Titanic eros.” The passion for ideas, especially when rooted in experience rather than reason, can be the driving force for a Titanic desire to dominate reality instead of inquiring into its essence.
To restrain Titanic eros from erupting in one’s soul, Socrates tries to cultivate self-control, or moderation, in people so as to lead them to pursue the just, beautiful, and good without becoming tyrannical. Specifically Socrates sought such to instill such self-control in those who were in positions of power and influence, so they would be able to act for the common good of Athens. By concretely appealing to their own experiences and natures, Socrates sought to cultivate a right type of eros in the likes of Agathon, Aristophanes, Alcibiades, and Phaedrus. It was in this sense, according to Rhodes, that Socrates’ philosophy was political: he tried to reorder the spiritual existence of the most prominent and political citizens so as to save Athens from its Titanic eros. Instead of hiding behind words, Socrates used them to try to turn around the souls of his friends to experience the good.
Eros, Wisdom, and Silence makes a convincing case for interpreting the Seventh Letter, Symposium, and Phaedrus as mystical and ineffable writings rather than estoeric pieces. Not only does Rhodes present the secondary literature on Plato’s writings thoroughly and fairly, but his analysis of Plato’s letter and dialogues is especially impressive, particularly the presentation of Homer’s Odyssey as the unifying paradigm for the Phaedrus, thus solving a problem that has bedeviled scholars for centuries. The work also does a wonderful job of showing how the Socratic periagoge works concretely in a detailed account of the arguments and the histories of the characters with whom Socrates and Plato engage. In short, the work presents a way to read Plato that runs counter to the predominant Straussian paradigm, so that when we read Plato, and Rhodes’ interpretation of him, we too hopefully will experience such a periagoge that will enable us to experience the just, beautiful, and good — to the extent that language can point us to it.