Part II: Continuing my reading of pages 50-62 of Strauss’s book The City and Man. I begin on page 52, fifth line down.
“But be this as it may, we certainly must return to the beginning.”
What beginning? The beginning of what? One is tempted to go back and read the first sentence again: “Generally speaking, we can know the thought of a man only through his speeches oral or written.” (For my comments on that sentence, go back to my first posting.)
This part of the introduction to his reading of the Republic, then, is the true beginning. The essay cannot begin at the beginning: The usual causal chain of the writing, including its reasoning, is interrupted. The effect of a beginning that cannot begin at the beginning is a kind of declaration of freedom on the part of the writer. It is also indicative of the reality of the way things are for philosophy. The true beginning of philosophy begins with Socrates, not with Thales, and Socrates doesn’t begin to truly philosophize until he discovers the second sailing. When the sails fail, you have to row. Philosophy begins with the founding of political philosophy, even though philosophy already existed.
Strauss continues from the beginning: “One cannot understand Plato’s teaching as he meant it if one does not know what a Platonic dialogue is. One cannot separate the understanding of Plato’s teaching from the understanding of the form in which it is presented. One must pay as much attention to the How as to the What.”
The Platonic dialogue is the teaching, one might say. The very way it is written provides not only the means to the what, but forms the what.
“At any rate to begin with one must even pay greater attention to the ‘form’ than the ‘substance,’ since the meaning of the ‘substance’ depends on the ‘form.'”
The entire discussion so far has been rather more Aristotle and than Plato. In great part, it is very hard to discuss exactly what irony is strictly in Platonic terms immediately. It is clearer to discuss irony in general through Aristotle, because Aristotle discussed it so well. At this point, Strauss is making a transition from Aristotle to Plato, using characteristic Medieval terminology, i.e.., the Latin transformation of Aristotle’s terms for form and substance.
One could be cute and say that substance is matter, while form is soul. If one wanted to go in that direction, one might say that the formal analysis of the dialogue is the analysis of the soul of Plato’s teaching, which is inseparable from the very way that dialogue is written. To read Plato solely for the philosophic matter and detach I from its soul is tantamount to ignoring the teaching completely.
Strauss now moves directly into Plato: “One must postpone one’s concern with the most serious questions (the philosophic questions) in order to become engrossed in the study of a merely literary question.”
Of course, the literary question is at the very heart of understanding everything.
“Still, there is a connection between the literary question and the philosophic question.”
We must recall that during Strauss’s lifetime, in the universities of this country Plato was not read as Strauss reads Plato. The dialogues were frequently divided in early, middle, and late periods, representing the three great periods of alleged changes in Plato thought. Also, there was the assumption, for example, that someone Socrates or the Eleatic Stranger were spokesmen for Plato, and what they said is what Plato believed. Moreover, at the heart of the conventional view of Plato was a belief that Plato believed in “forms,” i.e., in eternal, pure, abstractions that exist apart from the matter of the world that made what everything what it is and are. Much of the irony that Strauss uses is directed against the old academic approach to Plato, which still remains in many parts of academia. In effect, Strauss is challenging the establishment in a very harsh way: He is saying that they don’t know what they are saying about Plato. At the same time, today we have many Straussians who take the “literary question” so seriously that they lose the “substance.” They read Plato (as well as Strauss) in a completely political way. They, too, make a division between body and soul or assume that the soul is separable from the body as many religionists believe is possible. The dialogue is a whole that cannot be sundered.
“The literary question, the question of presentation, is concerned with a kind of communication. Communication may be a means for living together; in its highest form, communication is living together.”
That’s what Facebook and Twitter are for. Thank the goddess for the Internet.
People who know how to communicate are far more able to form associations than others who do not. The union in pure thought, it is said, is the greatest intimacy that can be established. But what is remarkable about the dialogues of Plato is that when we read them well, we actually live with Socrates and with the horrible Athenian aristocracy with whom he converses. We are able to do something that is exceptionally difficult: to understand the past, that foreign country that is all too impenetrable. It is exceptionally difficult to understand the day before, but to understand the world of Plato is basically impossible. One might even say that to understand Plato is practically impossible, because the topicality that is in the dialogues is completely lost to us. Yet, Strauss, in all his writings about the Plato and Xenophon, for example, demonstrates that the strongest key we have to the past is knowing how men wrote what they wrote and that it is possible for us to understand how men understood themselves. It is possible to do with Plato, because Plato wrote in a way that is self-revealing without him ever saying a single thing in the dialogues.
There is no progress.
“The study of the literary question is therefore an important part of the study of society. Furthermore, the quest for truth necessarily, if not in every respect, a common quest, a quest taking place through communication. The study of the literary question is therefore an important part of the study of what philosophy is. The literary question properly understood is the question of the relation of society and philosophy.”
What is most startling here is Strauss’s rather amazing assertion that philosophy and the relationship of philosophy to human community, which is established through communication, dialogue, are inseparable from each other. In effect, Strauss jettisons the common modern approach to philosophy as a list of ideas and alternates as truth, justice, metaphysics, epistemology, ontology, etc., etc., to be investigated and discussed separate from human community; this approach is in fact not truly philosophical. The quest for truth begins not in a discussion of Being, for example, but in the examination of the city and man and how the philosopher and philosophy lives with non-philosophers and non-philosophy. In effect, what Strauss asserts through his character Plato is that all philosophical problems are found in the examination of this rather large and complicated division. That means that the entire study of metaphysics or ontology, for example, can be made within the every day life of man in community. Moreover, because communication is the very means by which human beings live in community, the very way we understand communication is the key to learning the truth not just of a list of facts, but the truth about everything, the whole. We can know the truth of all things and we don’t have to do it by studying physics or evolution, for example, but through understanding the Platonic dialogue.
This startling assumption stands or falls on whether Strauss can demonstrate not only what the Platonic is and how it works, but he must demonstrate that the dialogue form chosen by Plato, a complete illusion, can articulate what is real or that the whole of things articulates itself through this form.
We have hundreds of years of modern philosophy that denies that assumption, and in fact actively worked, even subversively, to deconstruct Plato’s philosophy by, first, separating the form and substance of the dialogue, just as they rejected the interdependence of the whole, and then dealing solely with the matter of the dialogue by dividing the matter into topics which are “ideas.” The modern approach to philosophy is that philosophy is neat closet of subjects and ideas or concepts or even the Concept. You go into the closet and take out an idea and a concept and put it on. Hegel remarks that the moderns begin with concepts, while the ancients begin with things.
It is the modern approach to Plato, and that means in a very critical way that how you read Plato determines not only what philosophy is, but one’s own development philosophically. Plato begins with a decisive thing: the relationship between philosophy and the human community and from that examines the truth of all things. In fact, Socrates never leaves this everyday and mundane world of justice and ethics. Strauss’s radical departure from the modern understanding of philosophy cannot be called conservative.
“Plato’s Socrates discusses the literary question—the question concerned with writings—in the Phaedrus. He says that writing is an invention of doubtful value. He thus makes us understand why he abstained from writing speeches and books. But Plato wrote dialogues.”
Besides not exercising the memory which writing diminishes, we see that Socrates did not develop a way to communicate philosophy to others in future generations especially. He didn’t himself write to educate the young, leaving no documentary evidence of his crimes. Yet, of course, he had such a huge influence on Plato and Xenophon (not to mention Aristophanes) that they wrote monumentally about Socrates. Plato wrote so vividly about Socrates that it is not unusual to weep at his death. Socrates’ life, then, was turned into writing, something of doubtful value.
“We may assume that the Platonic dialogue is a kind of writing which is free from the essential defect of writings. Writings are essentially defective because they are equally accessible to all who can read and because they do not know to whom to talk and to whom to be silent or because they say the same things to everyone.”
A great difficulty for all communicators is to say something so that is not\only understandable, but that speaks in a way that is clear in its intention. Today, we assume that the truth sets you free, and that we can say the truth to everyone plainly. There are those who assume that because of that, we can say anything to anyone in any way. One is not responsible for how what one says and how someone takes what you say. But even the unwise know that is not true. No one wants to say something that is taken in the wrong way. Such misunderstanding can be terribly hurtful emotionally or it can cause a terrible accident. Responsible speech is incumbent on everyone.
But when writing, what we write here can be read by anyone who wants to read it. How we write these comments can be easily misunderstood and there are things that we might say that will enflame the passions of the reader in a bad way. The problem of written communication is to develop a way that does not enflame bad passions, especially those passions that move men to evil acts and bad habits. In our world, where all communications seem to be a motivation to buy something, consideration for the reader and the way he thinks and acts is rare and what is good for the reader, including giving the reader the greatest pleasures of reading, is rare. Only the best writers do it and the very greatest writers find ways that edify people, i.e., in some way make them better.
The best writers, like Shakespeare or Plato, are acutely aware of being just to their audiences.
“We may conclude that the Platonic dialogue says different things to different people—not accidentally, as every writing does, but that it is so contrived as to say different things to different people, or that it is radically ironical.”
The grace of irony is such that the soul of any reader is not hurt by the writing. Moreover, just as Socrates never admitted to the use of irony, Plato, too, never says that the dialogues are radically ironic. In modernity, in our universities, it is a common statement that Plato is ironic or that Socrates employs irony, but, as I noted in my previous posting, to discern what that irony is is very difficult. The only way to know what that irony is, as we now see, is that the irony is rooted in the true philosophy that is at the heart of the separation of the philosopher and non-philosophers, and the individual man and his community.
“The Platonic dialogue, if properly read, reveals itself to possess the flexibility or adaptability of oral communication.”
The best writing imitates the conversation between people, even if that conversation is one-sided. But imitating a conversation is also done by very bad writers and bloggers who monopolize the Internet and the publishing businesses. What the conversation is about is critical as well, and then there is a matter of technique.
“What it means to read a good writing properly is intimated by Socrates in the Phaedrus when he describes the character of good writing. A writing is good if it complies with ‘logographic necessity,’ with the necessity which out to govern the writing of speeches; every part of the written speech must be necessary for the whole; the place it occurs is the place necessary that it should occur; in a word, the good writing must resemble the healthy animal which can do its proper work well. The proper work of a writing is to talk to some readers and to be silent to others. But does not every writing admittedly talk to all readers?”
I have read a lot about logographic necessity from all kinds of Straussians and non-Straussians. Most assume that logographic necessity is a kind of writing where every word is placed where it is because it cannot be anywhere else and after a while the writing begins to look like a perfectly wrought being. If logographic necessity meant that, then perhaps the greatest writer of all time is James Joyce, who precisely wrote that way. But when we read Joyce, we are not reading Plato, who presumably does the very same thing. The artifice of the novel of Finnegans Wake even in its Viconian circularity is much more poetic than philosophical. Vico gives Joyce a philosophical pattern the novel; however, the novel does not provide us philosophy, even though it gives us Joyce’s thinking about numerous philosophical subjects.
That approach to logographic necessity is simply formal. The reason that approach is not true is what Strauss points out: the animal has to do its work well. The created being is not just a pretty thing and well arranged; it has to do its work, not just its work, but has to do it well. An army can look very pretty on the parade ground, but its truth is in the grime of battle and the blood shed. Logographic necessity has a dyadic structure, both of which have their own logos. One can give a long and machine like analysis of the being that is wrought, counting every word, but then we have to understand how that being works well. Together, that creates a totally different being, a being at work, or what Aristotle called energeia.
In other words, a good piece of writing acts, as well as speaks, and its action has its own argument. Strauss exploits and uses this dyadic structure throughout his works, and even uses the notion on his thin tome on Plato’s Laws. In other words, in literary terms, the good writing has a good plot and its characters and even its arguments move and do things. Because the logographic necessity of Plato is radically ironical, we must be aware that what is said and what is done are two different things that form a whole. Keeping in mind that the root of this entire process is the separation of the philosopher and philosophy from the community, this thematic separation and its dynamic is what animates the writing of the dialogue. If the being that is wrought in the writing is only formal, then the dialogue’s work to speak to different people in different ways does not work. The irony is the action of the dialogue. It is not only the unstated and silent means by which the reader is educated and cared for, but it is also a moving, three-dimensional picture of the philosopher as well as the community. The philosopher may say something, but the look on his face negates it, for example. Or, in political terms, those who listened to the first debates between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy on the radio thought Nixon won the debate. Those who watched the event on television clearly saw with their own eyes that Kennedy had won and had erased all doubts about his age and presidential demeanor.
The basic thing we find in the Platonic dialogue is individuality, and each man and women in the dialogues are generally very odd in some way, and could be perceived to be odd. What Plato does, because he writes not only of argument, but of action, he reveals something about Socrates that cannot be disclosed by simple argument, no matter how well laid out. Socrates is in action all the time. We see him at work and his work is frequently at odds with what he says. That happens with all of the characters in the dialogues. It is the same technique that Shakespeare uses in his plays. The individual, the thing, and how he or she acts, is what brings the play alive.
To make the point a bit better: Philosophy is not simply ruminating on philosophical questions or doing long lines of formal analysis on important subjects. It is a way of life, and that means that philosophy is carried out by an individual human being who has his own quirks and is an essential part of the whole of all things. Because he is aware of what his life is, he is self-reflecting about his way of life. But that way of life can only be shown in all its theatricality. The blush of Thrasymachus reveals more than his argument with Socrates. That Socrates is forced to go the house of Polemarchus is important to know what is going on the Republic. When Plato is read simply for arguments, no one is hurt, because Socrates stifles all the arguments that might hurt the reader. But, to see the action for what it is, that can be not only a radical irony, but it can be political radical as well.
Strauss answers the question he left at the end of the previous paragraph immediately: “Since Plato’s Socrates does not solve this difficulty for us, let have recourse to Xenophon’s Socrates.”
This sentence is a stab at the modern prejudice against Xenophon, that somehow this writer of farce is somehow inferior to the comic writer Plato. It also informs us that the two students of Socrates understood the Socratic method, without the normal initial cap.
“According to Xenophon, Socrates’ art of conversation was twofold.”
The number two is the first true number, and draws out attention to the dyadic structure of the dialogue.
“When someone contradicted him on any point, he went back to the assumption underlying the whole dispute by raising the question ‘what is…’ regarding the subject matter of the dispute and by answering it step by step; in this way the truth became manifest to the very contradictors.”
The “what is…” question is formal and its analysis is formal. By describing the what step by step, i.e., logically through causality, the truth becomes manifest to the doubters. That is how Socrates deals with people who conflict with him. He gives them the truth.
“But when he discussed a subject on his own initiative, i.e., when he talked to people who merely listened, he proceeded through generally accepted opinions and thus produced agreement to an extraordinary degree. This latter kind of the art of conversation which leads to agreement, as distinguished from evident truth, is the art which Homer ascribed to the wily Odysseus by calling him ‘a safe speaker.'”
Odysseus is a safe speaker, but Homer means that his hero is a liar. In fact, Odysseus is the greatest liar in literature, but now we know that Socrates is not above lying himself. The lie in the greatest sense is that the general community of men and the philosopher can truly come to an agreement, because the philosopher’s individual existence contradicts the very possibility of this agreement. Socrates’ safe speaking also indemnifies him from the accusation that he holds opinions that are dangerous or contrary to the conventional views of the community. The agreement doesn’t mean that Socrates believes that the conventional opinion is completely true, even if it is generally true. It means that the agreement is a new kind of convention that is established between Socrates and his listeners.
By producing this agreement, Socrates actually makes us look at the contrary where the truth lies.
“It may seem strange that Socrates treated his contradictors better than docile people. The strangeness is removed by another report of Xenophon. Socrates, we are told, did not approach all men in the same manner. He approached differently the men possessing good natures by whom he was naturally attracted on the one hand, and the various types of men lacking good natures on the other.”
Terrible cliché, the hand one. Very inelegant. Strauss ought to have known better.
Socrates knows that good natures are far more accepting of philosophy than those who do not have good natures. That is painfully obvious.
“The men possessing good natures are the gifted ones; those who are quick to learn, have a good memory and are desirous for all worthwhile subjects of learning. It would not be strange if Socrates had tried to lead those who are able to think toward the truth and to lead the others toward agreement in salutary opinions or confirm them in such opinions. Xenophon’s Socrates engaged in his most blissful work only with his friends or rather his ‘good friends.’ For, as Plato’s Socrates says, it is safe to say the truth among sensible friends.”
Truth, thus, is at the blissful heart of friendship. We choose our friends and we love our friends, because we can communicate truthfully with them. Socrates is attracted by the gifted who become his friends. Socrates had a community of friends, but he only had a few good friends like Plato, Xenophon, and Aspasia. That someone is gifted means that their nature is gifted; it is not made. Nature, not nurture, made them that way. Nature may be further realized, but one can’t go to school and become a philosopher or even the friend of Socrates.
Note once more than dyadic split: There are friends, and there are good friends. Friends who become good friends do the great work of friendship in a superlative way. Consider how both Xenophon and Plato realized the immortality of Socrates! In other words, a friend is simply a friend, an indeterminate, while a good friend is a concrete reality.
“If we connect this information with the information derived from the Phaedrus, we reach this conclusion: the proper work of a writing is arouse to thinking those who are by nature fit for it; the good writing achieves its end if the reader considers carefully the ‘logographic necessity’ of every part, however small or seemingly insignificant, of the writing.”
Once again, we have the dyadic structure. There is writing and there is good writing employing logographic necessity. Good writing like a good friend is a particular individuality, not some generic idea. What is living and real is realized in the superlative of the writing or the friend. The soul of the Platonic writing forms the matter of the writing, because the writing, a complete fiction, an illusion, a vast lie, suspends the lie so that we can see the truth. But only someone who is friendly to the truth will find the truth or have Socrates aid him in the quest for truth. All others live their lives thinking that the false is true. It is a kind of madness.