Leo Strauss on Plato's Symposiumby Leo Strauss, Seth Benardete (Editor), Seth Bernardete (Foreword by)
The first major piece of unpublished work by Leo Strauss to appear in more than thirty years, this volume offers the public the unprecedented experience of encountering this renowned scholar as his students did. Given as a course in autumn 1959 under the title "Plato's Political Philosophy," these provocative lectures—until now, never published, but instead
The first major piece of unpublished work by Leo Strauss to appear in more than thirty years, this volume offers the public the unprecedented experience of encountering this renowned scholar as his students did. Given as a course in autumn 1959 under the title "Plato's Political Philosophy," these provocative lectures—until now, never published, but instead passed down from one generation of students to the next—show Strauss at his subtle and insightful best.
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Leo Strauss on Plato's Symposium
By Seth Benardete
University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2001 Seth Benardete
All right reserved.
1 Introductory Remarks
This course will be on Plato's political philosophy and it will be conducted in the form of an explanation and an interpretation of the Symposium. By way of introduction I have to answer these two questions: (1) Why do we study Plato's political philosophy? and (2) Why did I select the Symposium? As for the first question, one could say that to give courses on Plato's political philosophy is the decent thing to do. It is admitted in the profession that political science students are supposed to have some knowledge of the history of political thought, the history of political philosophy. If this is so one surely must study it thoroughly, at least in graduate school, and the thorough treatment of the history of political philosophy requires specialized courses in the great political philosophers, hence also on Plato. This reasoning is rather poor for two reasons. In the first place, it would lead to the consequence that one should give such courses also, say, on Locke or Machiavelli, and I for one give such a course only on Plato. In the second place, though in all practical matters it is indispensable, either always or mostly, to follow custom, to do what is generally done, in theoretical matters it is simply untrue. Inpractical matters there is a right of the first occupant: what is established must be respected. In theoretical matters this cannot be. Differently stated: The rule of practice is "let sleeping dogs lie," do not disturb the established. In theoretical matters the rule is "do not let sleeping dogs lie." Therefore, we cannot defer to precedent and must raise the question, Why do we study Plato in particular?
When we look at the present situation in the world, this side of the Iron Curtain, we see that there are two powers determining present-day thought. I call them positivism and historicism. The defect of these powers today compels us to look out for an alternative. That alternative seems to be supplied by Plato rather than anyone else.
First positivism. Positivism makes the assertion that the only form of genuine knowledge is scientific knowledge. Physics is the model of all sciences and therefore of political science in particular. But this is more a promise than an achievement. This scientific political science does not exist.
In spite of this fact, we must take this position very seriously. Its motive can be crudely stated as follows: The same science--scientific method--which produced the H-bomb must also be able to prevent the use of the H-bomb. The science which produced the H-bomb, physics; the science dealing with the use of the H-bomb, political science. Now, you see immediately that this reasoning, that the same method which produced the H-bomb must also be able to prevent the use of the H-bomb, is very poor: the distinction between the use and misuse of anything--H-bomb included--means a distinction between good and bad, and this kind of distinction is now called a value judgment. According to the positivistic view value judgments are outside the scope of science. Therefore this positivistic political science promises something which it is, strictly speaking, unable and unwilling to supply. The characteristic thesis of positivism can be said to be that all values are equal. Positivistic science claims to be able to distinguish between attainable and unattainable ends. This is all. It cannot and does not claim more. It cannot even say that the quest for unattainable ends is foolish and therefore bad. This would be a value judgment. It can say only that they are unattainable. But it cannot say that the quest for unattainable ends is inferior to the quest for attainable ends. Positivists sometimes reject the imputation that according to their views all values are equal. But I can only say that this is merely an attempt to befog the issue. What they say in fact is that as far as human knowledge or reason is concerned, or as far as we know, all values are equal. This they certainly say, and there is no practical difference between the assertion 'as far as we know and shall ever be able to know' and the assertion that all values are equal.
The positivistic position can be characterized as follows: There is no position between the objectivity of science and the subjectivity of evaluations. The principles of thought, of thinking, of understanding, are objective. The principles of preference or action are necessarily subjective. I leave it at these brief remarks in order to characterize in a few words an alternative to positivism which I call historicism. There are all kinds of overlapping between these two areas of thinking, but it is unnecessary for us to go into them.
In the clear case, historicism admits that a value-free social science is impossible. But it asserts that both principles of thought and principles of action are essentially variable, or historical, and therefore in a radical sense subjective. In the vulgar form of this position we cannot arrive at any higher principles of understanding and of preferring than those of Western civilization. There are no principles of understanding and principles of preferring which belong to man as man, who can never go beyond a historically qualified humanity such as Western civilization. Historicism stems from Germany and is, therefore, far more developed there than, for example, in this country. But even in this country you find it in various forms. Carl Becker, I believe, was the most famous representative of historicism who denied the impossibility of any objective history. All historiography is based on the climate of the country and the age and can never transcend it. The difficulty with historicism, simply stated, is this: it cannot help transcending history by its very assertion. If we say every sort of man is radically historical, this assertion is no longer meant to be historical and therefore refutes the position. I cannot go into any further detail. I can only assert here that both positivism and historicism are not viable. But this is not the subject of this course. Assuming that they are viable, they are admittedly late positions. They are based on the experience of the failure of an earlier approach. This earlier approach is called in the loose language of this kind of literature the absolutist approach.
The absolutist approach asserts that there are invariable, unchangeable, universally valid principles of thought and action. This, it is said, has been destroyed by man's deeper reflection or by man's longer experience. From this it follows that if we as positivists or historicists want to understand ourselves we must understand our own ground, i.e., the absolutism of the past and the experience of the failure of that absolutism. Therefore a historicist or relativist, if he reflects on his position and wants to understand what he says, is compelled to understand the older position, the absolutist position, which he replaces. In other words, reflection, of which I have given here barely a specimen, on the defects of the views prevalent today, leads us to take a serious interest in the opposite view, in an evaluating social science that refers to invariable and universal principles. Such a social science was in existence at least until the end of the eighteenth century. The notion of a value-free social science emerged only in the last decade of the nineteenth century. The most talked about form of this older form of social science is the natural law teaching. This natural law teaching has its roots in the teaching of Plato and Aristotle, but it was not developed by them. It began to be developed by a certain Greek school, the so-called Stoics, which emerged after Aristotle, but we have barely sufficient evidence to speak about the Stoic natural law school. For all practical purposes, the classic of the natural law social science is Thomas Aquinas. As that part of the movement of thought which I have discussed up until now, Thomas Aquinas would be of the utmost interest to us.
But why concentrate on Plato as distinguished from Thomas Aquinas? In order to understand that, we have to consider a second meaning of relativism which has nothing to do with a value-free social science. If we look at what is going on in the sciences proper, in the natural sciences, and what is their peculiar character compared with earlier natural science, say up to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, we notice this: These sciences live in an open horizon. No results are regarded as definitive. All results, all theories, are regarded as open to future revision in the light of new evidence. This is a new phenomenon, that the highest authority for human society-- and the highest authority for Western society is science--has this peculiarly open character. As someone who was very competent to speak about these matters, Nietzsche, put it, "We are the first men who do not possess the truth, but only seek it." Nietzsche had in mind all dogmas, all systems which predominated in the past and also sometime later. The novel thing was a society which apparently does not possess the truth. Now, there is an apparent modesty, an apparent commonsensical reasonableness in this open-mindedness, this refusal to say, "I possess the truth," which has surely some attraction for most of us. When we look back from this seeming peculiarity of the late nineteenth century and twentieth century to the past, we see that there is only one great philosopher who somehow seems to have stood for this principle, that the questions are clearer than the answers to the important questions. That was Plato.
Everyone knows, or has heard, that according to Plato man is incapable of acquiring full wisdom; that the very name of philosophy--a quest for wisdom, love of wisdom--indicates that wisdom proper is not accessible to men. Or to use the other formula, philosophy is knowledge of ignorance rather than the complete system. One can also indicate this historically as follows: Plato founded a school called the Academy. This school became, a few generations after Plato, the New Academy, a skeptical school. Whereas traditional Platonism was one of the most dogmatic schools, Plato gave rise to a most skeptical school as well, and this can be explained by the fact that while Plato himself was neither a dogmatist nor a skeptic, his successors were unable to remain on this level. There is a remarkable sentence of Pascal according to which we know too little to be dogmatists and too much to be skeptics, which expresses beautifully what Plato conveys through his dialogues. This peculiar openness of Plato seems to make him particularly attractive to our age, which has gone through so many moral and other disappointments. I will not now develop this notion of Plato as a thinker who cannot be properly characterized as either dogmatic or skeptic. I will leave it at the following remark. The very openness of Plato--the assertion that man does not possess wisdom, that he can only strive for wisdom--in a way also closes the issue. Human knowledge is imperfect. Human knowledge is at best progressive and never final. This is, of course, a final assertion. The great difference between Plato and his modern followers, or seeming followers, is that Plato knew that men cannot live and think without a finality of some sort. Plato contended that the finality of the insight that we are never fully knowing implies a final answer to the question of the good life, including the question of the best society. This is the problem we have to understand while trying to understand Plato's thought.
In what I said there is an implication which I would like to make explicit: Plato never wrote a system of philosophy. In a way, no one until the seventeenth century had a system, strictly speaking, but Plato did not even write treatises, as Aristotle did, for example. Plato wrote only dialogues. The dialogic character of the Platonic writings has something to do with this peculiar openness of Plato's inquiries. This, however, creates a difficulty which is very great. In his dialogues Plato never appears as a character. Plato never says a word. Socrates speaks, and other men speak, but with what right can we say that what Socrates says is Plato's view? If you say it is obvious, I can reply very simply that it is also obvious in the dialogues that Socrates is an ironical man. To have as one's spokesman a man most famous for his irony is almost the same as not having a spokesman at all. To say it differently: No one would dream of ascribing to Shakespeare every sentence expressed by any Shakespearean character, however attractive that character may be. It is wise to begin the study of Plato with this sober skepticism. Whether a certain sentiment or thought expressed by any character, however attractive, is Plato's view, we do not know. Plato expresses his views surely through his dialogues, but not simply through the explicit utterances of his speakers. From this follows a variety of rules of reading which we will take up on the proper occasions. But, to begin with, the rule can be stated in its universality as follows: Plato's dialogues demand to be read with exceeding care. There is nothing superfluous, nothing meaningless in a Platonic dialogue. Socrates in the Phaedrus compares the good writing, the perfect writing, to a living being in which each part, however small, has a necessary function for the life and activity of that living being. The Platonic dialogue has a function--the function is to make us understand. And the dialogue is comparable to an organism insofar as every part of it has a function in making us understand. Therefore we must consider everything in a dialogue. I leave it at these general remarks about why we turn to Plato and turn now to the question, Why do we choose the Symposium? What can we expect to learn from the Symposium that we are not likely to learn from any other dialogue?
I give two reasons provisionally: There are many competitors with philosophy or many alternatives to philosophy. But the most important of them, according to Plato, is poetry, not science. From Plato's point of view what we call science is simply and obviously subordinate to philosophy and therefore not a competitor. Nor can one say religion, because religion is not a Greek term. One would have to say piety. But piety is from Plato's point of view no competitor with philosophy because philosophy, rightly understood, is the true piety. The competitor is poetry, especially tragedy, which has the broadest and deepest appeal because it moves most men most deeply.
At the beginning of the tenth book of the Republic, Plato speaks of the feud between philosophy and poetry. In the Apology of Socrates the poet Meletus appears to be the chief accuser of Socrates. He acts against Socrates on behalf of the poets. The class interests of the poets have been endangered by Socrates. The foundation of the formal accusation against Socrates was led by an informal accusation that Aristophanes, the comic poet, did not indeed originate but expressed, in his Clouds.
Now what is the issue between philosophy and poetry? It is a contest for supremacy regarding wisdom. Let me illustrate this from Aristophanes' Clouds: Socrates is presented there as a student of nature, a student of the nature of all things, or of the whole, and also as a teacher of rhetoric. He is presented as corrupting the young by letting them see the victory of the argument for injustice over the argument in favor of justice. He transcends the ephemeral, ordinary life of man, the merely human, and realizes the conventional character of those things which are regarded as sacred by all men. Although he is a teacher of rhetoric, he is unable to win the argument in the end--he cannot persuade the many. His "think tank," his school, is burned down. Philosophy, Aristophanes suggests, in contradistinction to poetry, is unable to persuade or to charm the multitude. Philosophy transcends the ephemeral, the mundane, the political. However, it cannot find its way back to it. The philosopher as such is blind to the context within which philosophy exists, namely political life. He does not reflect on his own doing, he lacks self-knowledge--he lacks prudence in the wide Platonic sense of the word, because he does not understand political things. This is connected with the fact--again I follow Aristophanes' indication-- that philosophy is unerotic and a-music, unpoetic. Philosophy is blind to the human things as experienced in life, in the acts of living. These acts of living are precisely the theme of poetry. Poetry integrates purely theoretical wisdom into a human context. It completes the completely theoretical wisdom by self-knowledge. Poetry is the capstone of wisdom. Poetry alone makes for the most comprehensive knowledge. By the way, you are all aware of this problem in present-day life. There is hardly anyone among you, I believe, who has not seen that a contemporary novelist with a reasonable degree of competence tells us much more about modern society than volumes of social science analysis. I don't question that social science analyses are very important, but still, if you want to get a broad view and a deep view you read a novel rather than social science.
Plato and Xenophon defend Socrates against this charge as follows: Socrates is so far from being blind to the political that he is truly the discoverer of the political in its own kind. Precisely Socrates understood the political as such, namely, the fact that the political is characterized by a certain recalcitrance to philosophy. In Plato's Republic we see that Socrates is a politically responsible man. It is Socrates' work that the argument in favor of justice wins out over the argument in favor of injustice. Socrates' philosophy is one act of obedience to the Delphic injunction "know thyself." His whole philosophy is self-knowledge or prudence. And Socrates, far from being an unerotic man, is the erotician. It is not true that poetry is the capstone of philosophy. On the contrary, philosophy is the capstone of poetry. This means not merely, as we shall see in the Symposium, that philosophy defeats poetry in the contest for supremacy regarding wisdom, it means also that the right kind of philosophy is more truly poetic than poetry in the common sense of the term. Poetry presents or interprets man's experience of human things according to their proper order, namely, the high is high and the low is low. But poetry must admit that the human things are not simply the highest things or the first things, that the true principles are no longer human. For example, in Homer the principle, the arkh¯e, is the Ocean--Okeanos. Yet Homer does not let us see, and cannot let us see, the principle becoming manifest in man above everything else, and become differently manifest in different men. When you see Hector or Achilles, you do not see Okeanos, the principle, in them. There is a crude juxtaposition, Plato implies, between the ultimate knowledge of the principle and poetry itself. Whereas Plato claims that by his understanding of the principle he is enabled to make the true principles transparent in human beings, in human action, in his characters. The reason he can raise that claim is his particular opinion, which we shall study later, of the human soul. For Plato, the human soul, and in a sense man, is, as it were, the concrescence, the growing together, of the highest principles. Therefore, if you have understood the soul in its essence, you can make these highest principles transparent in all human beings and all types of human beings. And this is precisely what Plato is trying to do in his dialogues. Platonic philosophy, by virtue of a deeper understanding of the principles, is able to see in men the manifestations of the principles.
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Meet the Author
Leo Strauss (1899–1973) was one of the preeminent political philosophers of the twentieth century. He is the author of many books, among them The Political Philosophy of Hobbes, Natural Right and History,and Spinoza’s Critique of Religion, all published by the University of Chicago Press.
Seth Benardete (1930-2001) was professor of classics at New York University. He was the author or translator of many books, most recently The Argument of the Action, Plato's "Laws," and Plato's "Symposium," all published by the University of Chicago Press.
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This is a transcript (more of less) of lectures. For whatever reason, only one tape recorder was used, and gaps in the lecture between reel changes manifest. No attempt to fill in the missing sections appears to have been made. This is the only downside to a remarkable insight into Strauss and his teaching style. One other thing...the introduction is not very good, and would have been better with more detail on the project.