My intention is to write an anti-blog about things I am interested in. I will do so in various ways. However, for a while, I am going to write a commentary reading of the beginning of Leo Strauss’s essay, “On Plato’s Republic” (50-62), which is found as the second chapter of his book, The City and Man. I urge people who have not read this essay by Strauss to buy the book and read it, and to compare notes with me. People who have read the essay are invited to compare their reading with mine.
Blogs are supposed to be short and personal. My anti-blog may at times be very long, and I will not be all that personal. My initial five postings will be this slow or close reading.
In part, I am doing a reading of this essay to show how amazingly stupid is the attack on Leo Strauss from the liberals and the left and from the LaRouchians, who continue to speak of him as the godfather of the Neocons. He is not. Most who speak of Strauss in this way simply have not read Strauss or, if they have, did a very sloppy job of it. If someone actually takes the time to read what Strauss writes as Strauss wrote it, not as interpreted through ideological struggle, one will find that Strauss is a man of great liberality and is not a conservative in any political sense as we think of conservatism today. The Neocons who have embraced Strauss have done so falsely and have misrepresented Strauss to the public and to themselves in a way that has made liberals and leftists believe that Strauss somehow is the bulwark of fundamentalist morality and the rest of the dreary lies that have been institutionalized in the public media dominated by the right.
Strauss begins his essay: “Generally speaking, we can only know the thought of a man only through his speeches oral or written.”
The general is not universal. It admits exceptions. Strauss’s first sentences are generally critical, as they are often a microcosm of the whole problem of the essay or book. His initial sentences are often ambiguous or invert themselves with irony. Here, the principle problem is the obvious exception to the general rule: One can often or even generally know the thought of a man in his actions as well. The oral speech is usually divided into the individual speech orated to an audience or in conversation, i.e., where speech is shared with others participating in conversation. Written works can take various forms, fiction, non-fiction, biography, essay, novels, etc.. But in both oral and written communication, the vehicle of the communication must presuppose that the thought of a man is expressed in a way that is both truthful in its presentation and communicated such that it can be understood by the audience the speaker or writer wishes to reach. If one wants to reach a multitude of people, then the speaker or writer must write in a way that is understood by the masses. If he wants only to reach certain people, then he must write in a way that will engage the minds of these people. In either case, to communicate a thought to others requires a certain degree of knowledge of the audience and, in certain cases, a very high order of knowledge of that audience. The comic on stage can’t get a laugh without knowing what will make his audience laugh. An oral speech directly spoken to others is accompanied by actions of the speaker. They can range from the theatrical to nervous ticks to studied movements to emphasize points. When something is written, we tend to do believe that the writer has no actions. The written text is generally regarded as simply words written and the action is taken by the reader. The thought communicated through the words apparently doesn’t have any delimiting action like the emphasizing hand or the pointed finger of the orator. Thus, what Strauss does in this sentence is to force us to consider not simply the speech, i.e., the words, but precisely how they are delivered through the action of the speaker and writer. This sentence not only is a lead into a long and complicated discussion of what the Platonic dialogue is, but it is also a political statement. When Strauss speaks of the political, he means it is about how human beings live together and how communication is used to influence others to either maintain or change their social lives. The first sentence is political, because if the speech is truly true and apparently so or if the speech is deceptive, either voluntarily or involuntarily, the speech or writing can be just or unjust. This sentence appears to be somewhat deceptive, as the casual or inattentive reader will simply miss the problem of action that is embedded in the sentence through its seeming absence. What is important about the sentence is what is not mentioned. But, then, someone might assert that there is may be an obligation on the part of the listener or read to pay attention to the speaker or writer. Yet, we know that obligation does not exist. You can speak, but no one has to take note. You cannot persuade a man who will not listen. This sentence has an action. It is structured such that its entire argument changes if one seeks the exception to the general. This sentence is not two-dimensionally flat, but suddenly it is in three-dimensions with a dynamic once we put together what is there with what is not. In some cases, a sentence of this kind, the general can be transformed into the universal.
Strauss continues: “We can know Aristotle’s political philosophy through his Politics. Plato’s Republic, on the other hand, in contradistinction to the Politics, is not a treatise but a dialogue among people other than Plato.”
People other than Plato are entrusted to carry Plato’s political philosophy, while in the treatise of Aristotle is clearly the voice of Aristotle; a rather one-sided conversation, or so it seems, brings forth Aristotle’s political philosophy.
Political philosophy is an ambiguous term. It can be philosophizing about political things, the problems of the city and man’s relation to it the city and to others, about what is good and right, what is just, and so on. But it also means, most critically, the political use of philosophy. Thus, by entrusting his political philosophy to others, he is also entrusting them to carry forth the politics of philosophy. Aristotle, however, takes that responsibility on himself.
Strauss continues: “Whereas in the reading of the Politics we hear Aristotle all the time, in reading the Republic we hear Plato never.”
Plato appears only once in the dialogues at Socrates’ trial among the many jurors, but he is silent and does not speak. The presence of the person who wrote the “Apology of Socrates” in the dialogue speaks through not speaking and he appears as a juror of Socrates at the trial that condemns the man to death. We see Plato in action; we do not hear him say anything.
“In none of the dialogues does Plato say anything. Hence, we cannot know from them what Plato thought. If someone quotes a passage from the dialogues in order to prove that Plato held such and such a view, he acts 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.”
The drama of Plato is likened to the drama of Shakespeare, who never appears in his plays or ever apparently identifies his thought with any one character. As for the allusion to Macbeth, we will speak of that later.
Strauss continues: “But 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. Plato speaks through a variety of spokesmen.”
In great part, this introduction is making a mockery of the way Plato is read and taught in this country and in many other countries. The “nots” are the bad boys in the dialogues, and, of course, Plato would not talk through bad guys, only the presumed good guys.
Strauss: “But why does he use a variety of spokesmen? Why does he make his Socrates a silent listener to his Timaeus’ and his Eleatic stranger’s speeches? He does not tell us; no one knows the reason; those who claim to know mistake guesses for knowledge.”
Because Timaeus and the Eleatic stranger speak practically the entire range of their dialogues and what they say seem enchanting, people frequently believe, especially in the universities, that somehow they must be talking for Socrates, who says nothing, because he is so impressed. Silence is consent, not contempt. The Pythagorean Timaeus is a foreign ambassador. It may be that Socrates thinks that everything Timaeus says is nonsense, but cannot tell him so out of propriety. There is a high order of hospitality that must be accorded to foreigners in ancient Greece. My guess is not so much a guess as it is an attempt to point out a problem.
“As long as we do not know what it means to be a spokesman for Plato; we do not even know whether there is such a thing as a spokesman for Plato. But this is still sillier: every child knows that this spokesman par excellence of Plato is his revered teacher or friend Socrates to whom he entrusted his own teaching fully or in part. We do not wish to appear more ignorant than every child and shall therefore repeat with childlike docility that the spokesman par excellence for Plato is Socrates. But it is one of Socrates’ peculiarities that he was a master of irony. But we are back where we started: to speak through the mouth of a man who is notorious for his irony seems to be tantamount to not asserting anything. Could it be true that Plato, like his Socrates, did not assert anything, i.e., did not have a teaching?”
I asked a local child if he knew that Socrates was Plato’s spokesman; then, the child looked at me as if I were crazy to question the very notion. It’s like saying that the Indian Vedic religion does not begin with and is founded on karma, that there is a succession of lives, life death and rebirth for successive millennia, is not believed by the real gurus. What we do know about Socrates is that he is notorious for his irony. Now, sadly, the American language which is fast becoming the grunts of expletives for communication has deteriorated so much that the use of the word “irony” means so many other things than it actually means. For example, there is a woman who in her life was so afraid that she would be murdered that she lived in under heavy security all the time. Eventually, she would be murdered by one of the people responsible for her security. I heard it said, “Isn’t that ironic?” No, it is not ironic.
Irony is the art of saying something in such a way that it appears to say one thing, but actually says the opposite. Irony is not the same thing as sarcasm. With sarcasm, we say one thing but mean another; however, the tone of sarcasm is meant to draw the attention to the discrepancy and it is made obvious to anyone but the listener who is oblivious.
Let us point out something here, which will come out later as well. Socrates is accused of being ironic on a regular basis, but no one is able to say what his irony is. They don’t understand something, and they believe that Socrates doesn’t mean what he says, but they can’t put their finger on what it is that he is saying. They believe that Socrates deceives people, in effect lies, usually to make fools of them and for Socrates to maintain a superiority to which he not entitled. However, it maybe Socrates always tells the truth. The irony of Socrates might be that he is not ironic at all, but only believed to be ironic by others who are lesser men.
Strauss hints at this problem by gently asserting that Socrates’ reputation for irony is not the same thing as being ironic. Someone can speak ironically without the intent of irony. He doesn’t see that his own words turn against him. One might say that a lot of Socrates’ interlocutors are more ironic that Socrates.
So, let us consider what is going on here: All children know Socrates is Plato’s spokesman; however, how can he be one if Socrates is an ironist, at least by reputation? Why can’t an ironist be a spokesman for Plato? If Plato is using others to convey his political philosophy, why can’t an ironist be a spokesman? If Socrates is saying one thing, but means another, how does that negate being a Platonic spokesman? What Strauss seems to be saying is that a teaching to be a teaching must be straightforward and not be the opposite of what it is, not a teaching. And the teaching must be trusted to a person who speaks in a straightforward manner who does not deceive people. The ironical man who says he is teaching that virtue is knowledge really means that virtue is not knowledge or that non-virtue is knowledge. In other words, he is not teaching anything at all, because he contradicts himself. Are Plato and Socrates both ironists and thus negate any possibility of a teaching?
What we find in the first part of this essay is an examination of the common misconceptions and misinterpretations of Plato, that not only does he have a teaching, but that we can identify that teaching through what someone says, Socrates, or someone else. This belief, however, falls apart under examination, because what is based on unexamined assumptions or misunderstandings. In other words, it may be that while every child knows that Socrates is Plato’s spokesman, the assertion of that knowledge by adults collapses in such a way that it in fact it may be true that Socrates is a spokesman for Plato, but in a way we do not understand in the way every child does know.
Thus, the irony here is that the belief that Socrates is an ironist is based on the assumption that he is in effect says that he is not. To show that Socrates is an ironist means to understand exactly what Socrates says and thinks. And every child knows exactly what Socrates says, but every child may not know that Plato is an ironist, because he may have a teaching and a teaching cannot be ironic.
Strauss continues: “Let us then assume that the Platonic dialogues do not convey a teaching, but, being a monument to Socrates, present the Socratic way of life as a model. Yet they cannot tell us: live as Socrates lived.”
This view is a common staple in the universities, because many people really believe that virtue or philosophy can be taught. You study philosophy and read the ideas, get a PhD and you are philosopher and you can live like Socrates lived, while teaching to wide-eyed students about the spokesmen of Plato in the middle period of Plato’s dialogues, and then making them write essays about Plato’s view of the forms.
In any event, a monument, yes, a model of man is Socrates.
To this notion, Strauss says: “Yet they cannot tell us: live as Socrates lived. For Socrates’ life was rendered possible by his possession of a ‘demonic’ gift and we do not possess such a gift. The dialogues must tell us: live as Socrates tells you to live; live as Socrates teaches you to live. The assumption that the Platonic dialogues do not convey a teacher is absurd.”
Of course, suddenly we have the unironic Socrates who can convey a teaching.
But there is a very serious problem here about philosophy itself. In the dialogues and also in Xenophon, Socrates is said to have a particular gift that tells him, for example what to do and what to refrain from doing. This gift here is linked directly by Strauss to the philosopher. In effect, to be a philosopher is something that you cannot be solely through study and learning. Nature or something divine gives you a gift that enables you to become a philosopher and to philosophize. But there is something fishy about this statement as well. Strauss says “we do not possess such a gift.” Now, I make the rash assumption that Strauss was a philosopher. I hear the tongues clucking the background: If you know that Strauss is a philosopher, then you have to be a philosopher. Strauss never said he was a philosopher. He said he did not have a demonic gift. He says so. Of course, one could say that like all children knowing Socrates is Plato’s spokesman, the “we” is simply the editorial we or the royal we of the philosopher king. Strauss frequently uses the we, and we believe that when he uses the we in this way it is the same way that an editorial writer in a newspaper does. It is meant to convey the notion that the writer is a spokesman for others. He is, in effect, saying, I speak for the rest of you, but not necessarily for me. The “we do not possess” means you don’t have the gift.
Live like Socrates says to live? Well, again, we are caught up the problem of irony. If Socrates is a constant ironist, when he says to live in particular way me might actually mean to live in another way. But, then, if he is not an ironist, or only uses irony on special occasions, then it is very possible to live according to the way Socrates says one ought to live. For example, Socrates, the most immoderate man in the world tells us all to be moderate.
Strauss continues: “Very much, not to say everything, seems to depend on what Socratic irony is. Irony is a kind of dissimulation, or of untruthfulness. Aristotle therefore treats the habit of irony primarily as a vice.”
Not to be truthful, to lie, is to be vice ridden.
“Yet irony is the dissembling, not of evil actions, or of vices, but rather of good actions or of virtues; the ironic man, in opposition to the boaster, understates his worth. If irony is a vice, it is a graceful vice.”
To be graceful does not make the vice any better, except that perhaps it is more effective in its lie. But to be graced with irony must mean something to the audience or individual. One might rephrase the ancient poet’s statement that nothing to comes to man except through the Graces, the charities, but that perversely plays on the more common notion that it is through god’s grace that we get something, like a meteorite that falls through our roof and eventually finds its way to a museum or fetches a fortune at the auction block. That irony is graceful seems to imply that the ironist is a kind of god, especially as he is lying not about evil actions or his own vices, but rather of his good and virtuous acts. But, then, what god understates his worth? No god needs to. For the most part, gods tend to inflate their worth with acts that are hardly graceful, but awesome.
[A note on the language: Here in California and elsewhere, the word “awesome” is used as an adjective that indicates that there is something marvelously positive about something. Awesome is derived from the awe, that is the gigantic fear a god engenders when he does something miraculous, like killing every first-born son in a desert land or killing the entire population of two cities on the plain. The god inspires through awe and manages and instructs men through horrible fear. But we in here in Southern California, well, people will say the local yogurt store is awesome.” Isn’t that ironic?]
Irony is graceful about actions, not words, although these words are about understating one’s worth. If irony is about action, then it is irony lies about of how virtue and good actions are. Irony also seems to be a form of action itself. Action is a means of bringing something to be. What then does dissembling about one’s worth mean? Obviously, when everyone thinks that Socrates is ironic, he is appears to them full of vice because he is so virtuous in his acts. Perhaps some might believe that Socrates is actually dissembling his evil and vice-ridden acts to appear virtuous; however, that would seem against the graceful vice that irony is.
“Properly used, it is not a vice at all: the magnanimous man—the man who regards himself worthy of great things while in fact being worthy of them—is truthful and frank because he is in the habit of looking down and yet he is ironical in his intercourse with the many.”
Irony is the pillar of democracy! Without it, we, the unworthy, would have to put up with the great man who deserves great things. Oh, the resentment!
Strauss now gives a definition: “Irony is then the noble dissimulation of one’s worth, one’s superiority. We may say, it is the humanity peculiar to the superior man: he spares the feelings of his inferiors by not displaying his superiority.”
Just like Socrates who never showed his superiority. It was for other reasons he was put to death. Obviously, Socrates was so successful in his irony that no one ever noticed that he was superior.
Note the very unusual use of the comma after say. Strauss inserts a small pause where grammatically there ought to be none. The correct “we may say it is the humanity peculiar to the superior man…” has a different nuance. It makes the conditional actual. The incorrect insertion of the comma draws out attention to the conditional. We are meant to ask, may we really say that? It questions the conditional.
“The highest form of superiority is superiority in wisdom. Irony in the highest sense will then be dissimulation of one’s wisdom, i.e., the dissimulation of one’s wise thoughts. This can take two forms: either expressing on a ‘wise’ subject such thoughts (e.g., generally accepted thoughts) as are less wise than one’s own thoughts or refraining from expressing any thoughts regarding a ‘wise’ subject on the ground that one does not have the knowledge regarding it and therefore can only raise questions but not give any answers. If irony is essentially related to the fact that there is a natural order of rank among men, it follows that irony consists in speaking differently to different people.”
The wise man always lies about his wisdom when dealing with the unwise. But the two forms are rather oddly written. He takes generally accepted opinions and makes them look wise. He lies about the unwise to make it appear that people who have these unwise opinions are wise. The other way is for the wise man to lie about the fact that he has answers to questions, which he refuses to reveal, perhaps answers that men might desperately need, but may not accept as they are unwise. The unwise are unwise, because they cannot accept the rule of the wise, ironists who dissemble their wisdom so to speak to different people in different ways in their magnanimity.
The possibility opens that, in the end, only the wise truly see what irony is, and that knowledge alone makes a man wise. This prudence is necessary, because there seems to be an unbridgeable gulf between the wise and everyone else. Moreover, this gap is a natural gap, and not conventionally caused by human legislation and habit. But if this division of humanity is natural, it means that the wise man and his activities with other men is a constant challenge to engage in the unwise in wise activity, and the magnanimity exercised by the wise man is also natural, and it is a natural right to rule. The inability of the unwise to rule properly means that the wise choose to be ruled by what is unnatural and against the natural order of things. The conventional order that men live by may not be natural, but that men create these unnatural orders seems to be part of the natural way men live in community. Rather than accepting the natural right to be ruled of the wise, they live in an illusory world, thinking that what is not wise is wise and what is wise is unwise. To deal with the unwise, the wise of necessity must employ irony, because it is the only way the wise can communicate with the unwise where the natural order is both retained, but provides a conventional means by which the wise can at the very least mitigate the bad things the unwise do and think, especially among those unwise whose pretentions move them to lord over others. When they do, the natural order is violated by men who attempt to live outside of the natural order in an illusory sense of wholeness or order. The conventional order in this case is a lie.
Strauss at this point quotes Burnett: “While there can be no doubt that Socrates was notorious for this irony, it is not much of an exaggeration to say that irony and kindred words ‘are only used of Socrates by his opponents and have always an unfavorable meaning.’ To this one could reply that where there is smoke there must be some fire or rather that avowed irony would be absurd.”
The true ironist never acknowledges his irony, while at the same time he suffers from the accusation that he is an ironist from the very people who have no idea what irony truly is. To acknowledge irony, the ironist would have to admit that he is lying. But if he admits that he is an ironist, then, of course, he would no longer be using irony in dealing with the unwise, thus violating the natural order.
The true ironist who lies about his wisdom cannot admit his irony, because that would be unjust.