Strauss it up, I’ll take it: Leo Strauss & Straussianism

Leo Strauss was born on this day in 1899. Counterfactuals can’t happen, but he probably saved the world from the monopoly of interpretations of Plato like Karl Popper’s.

Probably the most central insight Strauss had about Plato was that whereas everyone else places Plato’s forms at the center of his thought, Strauss made the form with which Plato wrote central—i.e. the dialogue. Strauss went so far as to suggest that “[i]f someone quotes a passage from the dialogues in order to prove that Plato held such and such a view, he acts about as reasonably as if he were to assert that according to Shakespeare life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”* Of course, this was one of those instances of Strauss’ wonderful habit of making a point by exaggerating, as he says in the comment that follows it. Strauss was the Marshall Mcluhan par excellence, re-declaring Aristotle’s view that man is the political animal and asserting that Plato’s view was that all thought is political (i.e. that’s why Plato chose the dialogue).

Strauss has a second insight that is worth mentioning here. He asserted that philosophy has come down to us in two distinct traditions—the Classical tradition originated by Socrates and the modern break originated by Machiavelli. I have to say that it is a very compelling idea. If it is true then it means that we have given the Classics short shrift & prematurely rejected them when we rejected the Classical Liberalism. It should be investigated just because it may be true. After all, thinkers still today take for granted that Classical Liberalism was merely a necessary development of Classical Philosophy and that the Classics can be rejected just because Classical Liberalism is superficial. Certainly giants no less than Nietzsche & Heidegger approached it this way.

But my favorite thing about Strauss is that if you have read Plato & Aristotle somewhat widely, when you read writings by Strauss & other Straussians, you actually get the impression that these people are more familiar with Plato & Aristotle than you are. Anything about them not written by a Straussian is likely to be lightweight. It’s really bizarre. But then again, Straussians are the people that are open to the possibility of Classical Philosophy simply being superior.

Finally, I just think it’s hilarious that he’s most famous for being some sorta sinister 20th century Machiavellian mastermind by people who have no idea about his thought. I have to agree with a line from Tim Robbins’ play that features him where the fascist villains chant “Hail Leo Strauss!!”

F O O T N O T E

* Strauss continues, “[b]ut this is a silly remark. Everyone knows that Plato speaks through the mouth not indeed of his Protagoras, his Callicles, his Menon, his Hippias, and his Thrasymachus, but of his Socrates, his Eleatic Stranger, his Timaeus and his Athenian stranger.” Soon after he continues, “[b]ut this is still sillier: every child knows that the spokesman par excellence of Plato is his revered teacher or friend Socrates to whom he entrusted his own teaching fully or in part;” Leo Strauss, The City Man, p50

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