Part V: This post will conclude my reading of pages 50-62 of Leo Strauss’s The City and Man. These pages are the introduction to his essay “On Plato’s Republic.” I begin at the last paragraph at the bottom of page 60. The previous four parts of my discussion are below.
Strauss writes: “When Socrates explains in the Republic what a drama in contradistinction to other poetry is, the austere Adeimantus thinks only of tragedy. In the same way the austere reader of the Platonic dialogues—and the first thing which Plato does to his readers is to make them austere—understands the Platonic dialogue as a new kind of tragedy, perhaps as the finest and best kind. Yet Socrates adds to Adeimantus’ mention of tragedy the words ‘and comedy.'”
“The tragedy and comedy of life” is incorporated in Plato through his dialogues, and the actual phrase mentioned in the Philebus. While this pair seems very natural to man, the problem of explaining what tragedy and comedy are, both individually and their relationship together, is one that has been controversial from even before Plato.
Strauss intimates that Plato deliberately makes the dialogues seem very austere or even tragic, as, after all, the execution of Socrates is apparently a great tragedy for Athens, depriving them of their greatest king. Certainly, one can’t say that Socrates is a tragic figure, as he is quite a joke. He is an ugly old deadbeat who is a horrible father and husband, who does nothing useful or productive at all except to engage people in conversations to test his and their wisdom. Yet, the way Plato writes about Socrates one actually weeps at Socrates’ death. But is that weeping pity? We pity when someone suffers from an undeserved punishment, and as many Straussians believe that Socrates did commit some kind of crime we must assume that we should not pity Socrates. Now the punishment might be considered a bit severe, to take his life, but, then, we would be outraged if Socrates were simply given public welfare for the rest of his life as what Socrates proposes as his punishment. And as all good tea-bagger Straussians know, welfare is anathema and cannot be given even to the criminal Socrates.
“At this point we are compelled to have recourse, not only to an author other than Plato but to an author whom Plato could not have known since he lived many centuries after Plato’s death. The reason is this. We have access to Plato primarily only through the Platonic tradition, for it is that tradition to which we owe the interpretations, translations, and editions. The Platonic tradition has been for many centuries a tradition of Christian Platonism. The blessings which we owe to that tradition must not blind us however to the fact that there is a difference between Christian and primitive Platonism.”
Strauss does not tell us here of what that difference consists. But because I am not doing a major reading of all of the Strauss work here, I will offer this observation. The difference between the Christian and pagan Plato is over the problem of eros. All Christians in various forms believe that eros, love, has a cosmic source or that the cosmos is held together by god’s love, a love that sends Jesus to redeem men, who are burdened with original sin and bad consciences. In fact, the Christians don’t even use the word eros, as Christianity is opposed to eros and they use other terms of art for love.
In Plato, eros is a metaphysical passion that belongs only to man. Eros, in fact, is identified ultimately with philosophy itself. There is no cosmic love, be it philia or eros, Moreover, that eros is natural to man alone, and it is more natural than politics. The problem of the soul of man is not his original sin and his redemption through cosmic love; it is instead a problem of self-knowledge rather than faith. In effect, the answer to every question, especially every important question, is philosophy, not Jesus, not god.
“It is not surprising that perhaps the greatest helper in the effort to see that difference should be a Christian saint. I have in mind Sir Thomas More.”
It is very hard to see what level of respect Strauss has for More. More has a very great and humane and humanist image throughout the years. As he was regarded as a man who fought the tyranny of Henry VIII and a defender of the Christian religion as practiced before the Reformation, More’s life is regarded as one of martyrdom and great sacrifice. The ultimate expression of that image is the play A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt. This play is better known by the movie of the same name. In it, More is seen as a man of exquisite virtue, moderation, and justice, as well as a man who believes firmly in his god and church, and his conscience. He was also called the English Socrates. More’s work is very witty, and very well written, one of the pinnacles of our literature, no matter what.
The other More is not such a bight light. That More is self-righteous, and rather attentive to a nearly fanatical zeal against heresy. Chancellor More used torture against those he considered heretical, and burned six at the stake, definitely not the Socratic way. As much as More is revered by Catholics, Protestants revile him. The political and personal More is dubiously good. More started his political career by writing a false history of Richard III, one that is the basis for the play by Shakespeare. It appears to curry great favor from the Tudors.
How Strauss regards the actual life of More decides how much irony we have to read here.
“His Utopia is a free imitation
of Plato’s Republic. More’s perfect commonwealth is much less austere than Plato’s. Since More understood very well the relation between speeches and deeds, he expressed the difference between her perfect commonwealth and Plato’s by having his perfect commonwealth expounded after dinner, where the exposition of Plato’s commonwealth takes the place of dinner.”
In Plato, the city in speech replaces the meat that the creepy kids Glaucon and Adeimantus look forward to eating. The urgency of the discussion replaces the pleasures of the table. While Strauss says that More’s city in speech is less austere, More’s commonwealth has a very monastic quality to it as well. The character of More’s commonwealth is not very lavish.
Strauss is also alluding to another problem. The city in speech in Plato is often referred to as a utopia. More’s utopia is a Latin’s pun on the Greek ou, “not,” and topos, “place,” and thus we get the meaning not-place. More could have instead called his commonwealth Metopia, the Greek me, “non,” with topos, and get non-place. More’s commonwealth is not placed at the longitude and latitude in which it is placed. If it were a non-place, then it would have no being whatsoever, instead of being a commonwealth at a very obscure location. It is rather odd to speak of nothing and nowhere.
When Socrates works out his city in speech, we get something very much like the Greek tragedies, as Seth Benardete likes to say in reverse. The city in speech in Plato is both timeless and placeless. One is tempted to say that Plato’s city in speech is a metopia, rather than a utopia. What makes Plato’s city in speech more austere is the fact that his city in speech is a complete fiction, an image that has no being whatsoever. A city that has no being does not move or make war or do much of anything. It doesn’t burn heretics. The city in speech that we find in Plato is occasioned by the search for justice and what it is. This investigation leads to the creation of a non-place, a city exists solely in speech and no in anything else. Oddly, in many ways, all the Platonic dialogues seem to be that way as well. They are radical fictions. But while the ideal city of the Republic cannot be brought into being, the Platonic dialogues apparently keep philosophy and truth alive in some way.
Furthermore, we must also at this point look into the Christian concept of heaven where those who have salvation go after death. Is it a place? A utopia at an obscure location? Or is it a non-place? Life after death in whatever form we see it seems to be a location, and its denizens beings who live forever in some kind of special non-human state, the city of god. While in Plato, no one will ever live in his city in speech, it appears that saved souls will live in what to us can only be a city in speech, as we do not have knowledge of what heaven truly is. However, in Plato, we can know the city, the whole city, both the actual and the city in speech.
Of course, there is another problem. What about the actual city? Is there is natural city? If there were, wouldn’t we all live in it? That men may be naturally social, that doesn’t mean the polis, the city, is natural and has being. At first blush, a city, a polis, has no being as well. It is merely the conventions that men make for themselves when they actually live together. The difference between an actual city and a city in speech is that in the actual city is an aggregate of human beings doing what they do when living together, while a city in speech is an image, a non-being, in which no man will ever live.
In both cases, however, this non-being is a whole. The whole of the population of New York is a city, but there is no natural New York City, any more than sprawling Los Angeles will ever be a city or an urbs. In other words, an actual city’s wholeness is an indeterminate that encompasses everything an actual city has and does, as well as what it cannot and does not, while the non-being of the city in speech a non-whole that encompasses nothing that can be realized in actuality. Moreover, we know from Parmenides that we cannot say anything about non-being and we can’t even think about non-being. For according to the pre-Socratic philosopher there is only the oneness of being. Young Socrates interjects, you mean that not-much.
Apparently, then, we can think about non-being and even articulate it. It appears that Parmenides is wrong. But why is he wrong? Because, simply, he never took the step to political philosophy. We do not live theoretical lives in theoretical cities. But the actual city is a non-being, not in theory.
“In the thirteenth chapter of his Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation More says: ‘And for to prove that this life is no laughing time, but rather a time for weeping, we find that our savior himself wept twice or thrice, but never find we that he laughed so much as once. I will not swear that he never did, but at the last wise he left us no example of it. But on the other side, he left us example of weeping.’ More must have known exactly the opposite is true of Plato’s—or Xenophon’s—Socrates: left us no example of weeping, but, on the other side, he left us an example of laughing.”
Of course, that example of laughing is at the time Socrates is about to executed. One of the examples of Jesus’s weeping is just before he faces execution.
More’s Comfort was written while he was in the Tower, facing charges that he did not subscribe to the Act of Succession, a charge that was later converted into treason which led to his execution. While clearly Socrates regarded his death a rather comic affair, the death of More and Jesus are regarded much more as teary events. But in the case of all three men, we have punishment at the heart of the problem. In a certain sense, all three men were executed unjustly, although in the case of Jesus it is part of a divine plan to end all sacrifices and substitute the reenactment of his sacrifice in its stead. To kill a great man unjustly as punishment surely must be tragic and deserves our pity.
“The relation of weeping and laughing is similar to that of tragedy and comedy. We may therefore say that the Socratic conversation and hence the Platonic dialogues is slightly more akin to comedy than tragedy. This kinship is noticeable also in Plato’s Republic which is manifestly akin to Aristophanes’ Assembly of Women.”
Laughter is the only coincidence of knowledge and pleasure in man there is. Socrates laughing at this death is indicative of the pleasure of his knowledge.
The theatricality of life of necessity brings us to the problem of tragedy and comedy, because the Platonic dialogues are dramas or mimes. In a very strange sense, the truth of the passion is in its imitation of its extreme actions that make for comedy and tragedy. In that sense, all of us are individually playwrights who distance themselves from their passions to give them shape and form. In tragedy and comedy, there is a great deal of anger directed against our philosophical nature by poets.
In the Philebus, Plato gives a remarkable but very narrow account of comedy. Basically, it fits Aristophanes exceptionally well, but, then, it is Aristophanes who is the first true comedian and all comics are his children. The comic poet makes fun of people who think they are far more wise than they really are. But, every once in a while, the comic poet has a friend or acquaintance who is wiser than the poet, and the comic poet envies him. The comic poet attempts to show us his superiority in his work as he punishes his friends whom he accuses to be full of pseudo-wisdom. He makes his friend look very foolish. The audience laughs, but is unaware of the poet’s envy as he doles out this punishment. In truth, that envy doesn’t show itself as envy until we see the pleasure that the comic poet has in punishing the object of his laughter, part of which comes from the inability of the object of this abuse to retaliate. This weakness makes the object of the comedy seem even weaker and even less wise.
To go further, we can say that in comedy’s laughter is the sense that all human beings are defective, radically so. For that, comedy is no less tragic than tragedy. All superiority is ultimately pseudo-superiority and as such comedy is remarkably democratic. Men are reduced to their lowest nature, their happiness bestial contentment. All envy is actually pseudo-envy, because there is nothing really worth envying. The comic poet cures envy, while retaining all superiority for himself, as he knows that and can make people look very stupid.
Listen and watch a comic sometime, and listen and watch how he envies the people he makes fun of, especially at the point he is obviously relishing what he is doing to someone. Chelsea Handler is always superior to everyone. That’s why she is so funny.
Tragedy seems to be inversion of this notion of comedy. We grieve at the evils that befall the tragic hero and rejoice in his goods. However, it is impossible to envy Oedipus’s wisdom that he acquires, because it comes at such a high price. In tragedy, true wisdom is unenviable. In effect, at the heart of Sophocles the gods are full of pseudo-wisdom. The punishment of the initial pseudo-wisdom of Oedipus is not done because the gods are wise. While we may laugh at the pseudo-wisdom of a friend, we weep at the discovery of our own pseudo-wisdom. In effect, the gods are full of pseudo-wisdom and they envy man’s wisdom. Tragedy is the resistance to the belief that man is nothing, even in comparison to the gods, but to attain that superiority that Oedipus finds come at too high a cost. We weep at that punishment. The tragic poet knows no superiority and thus conceals knowledge to cure ambition. Stay in your place. Be fearful of what might happen. Do not be hubristic. Otherwise, you will end up punished like Oedipus. To gain knowledge in that way is not worth it.
Moreover, justice is always punishment, never acquittal or mercy. There are no gods or god without punishment and that is at the heart of tragedy and comedy.
In the tenth book of the Republic, Socrates notes that a great poet can write comedy and poetry equally well (as Shakespeare does, for example). But I also take that to mean that the great poet not only can write comedy and tragedy, but that he can write about something greater that is the whole of both tragedy and comedy. If that is the case, then Plato’s dialogues do precisely that, and as such the dialogues do not conceal knowledge and they do not envy anyone. At the same time, Plato acknowledges his debt to Aristophanes by both portraying him delightfully in the Symposium and by imitating his plays in Plato’s own work.
“Plato’s work consists of many dialogues because it imitates the manyness, the variety, the heterogeneity of being. The many dialogues form a kosmos which mysteriously imitates the mysterious kosmos. The Platonic kosmos imitates or reproduces its model in order to awaken in us to the mystery of the model and to assist us in articulating that mystery.”
A cosmos is a well-ordered whole, i.e., there can be no model of the whole, because the whole of things cannot be separated from the whole. Yet, the illusion that we can make a model of the cosmos is part of the mystery of the cosmos. In effect, the mind of man is a medium of cosmic communication that deceives itself into believing that model that the mind makes is the real thing. The proper approach is to be able to create a model that immediately suspends itself so that one can “see” the whole cosmos from within as a part.
“There are many dialogues because the whole consists of many parts. But the individual dialogue is not a chapter from an encyclopedia of the philosophical sciences or from a system of philosophy, and still less a relic of the stage of Plato’s development. Each dialogue deals with one part; it reveals the truth about that part. But the truth about a part is a partial truth, a half truth. Each dialogue, we venture to say, abstracts from something that is important to the subject matter of the dialogue. If this is so, the subject matter as presented in the dialogue is strictly speaking impossible. But the impossible—or a certain kind of the impossible—if treated as possible is in the highest sense ridiculous or, as we are in the habit of saying, comical. The core of every Aristophanean comedy is something impossible of the kind indicated. The Platonic dialogue brings to its completion what could have been thought to have been completed by Aristophanes—”
It is just to remember that when Strauss was in academia here, the study of Plato was that of trying to figure out the development of his thought through the early, middle, and dialogues. Strauss’s assault on this method has succeeded greatly in some parts of the academic world. The truth of the dialogues is not that any one dialogue is dedicated to a particular philosophical idea. While it is true that the Republic is about justice, what is abstracted from that dialogue is the human body. That abstraction is remarkable, because the primary purpose of the city, the polis, is the care and preservation of the body. Instead, the city in the Republic is treated as if it can care and educate the soul, which, of course, it cannot do.
When Strauss speaks of the heterogeneity of being and the manyness of the dialogues imitating that variety, Strauss is making a metaphysical point. Being is the principle of manifestation that contains in itself the totality of possibilities of manifestation, but only insofar as they can be manifested. Strauss rarely speaks like the modern who speaks of what do the words being and existence mean? Existence, the modern concern, is rarely a part of reading Plato or the ancients. However, to make sense of all this, we have to say that while being is the principle of manifestation, being develops and embraces existence, which is conditioned upon being and cannot be identical with being. All existences, the unique beings, so to speak, are the many modes of being, and even existence also has many modes of existing. Yet, all unique forms of existence, nevertheless, predicated of being. Thus, the variety of the Platonic dialogues is a mirror of the many modes of being and they exist. The unicity of existence in a certain sense is being, a being that can be understood to be forever. The cosmos is more than being, however. It also includes what has no being as well, what is other than being, and the whole of is an ineffable indeterminate, which Plato called the Good.
What we must understand here is this: Strauss is as much a metaphysician as any of the great philosophers. However, he is a metaphysician in the Platonic mode. Strauss does not speak of metaphysics as if it were a model or group of propositions or he does not speak of being and non-being as abstractions. He does so in the context of how metaphysics shines out from everyday conversation and the order of the Platonic dialogues. Plato doesn’t speak of the human being as an abstraction; no, Plato speaks of Socrates and his way of life. One cannot emphasize enough that the Platonic method is to present philosophical problems, including the most difficult problems of metaphysics, as part of everyday life as it is. Metaphysics is not a bunch of pure ideas set up in heaven. Metaphysics is found in the way we live, in every day political problems, household problems, in questions of ethics and morality, in laughter and tears.
Aristophanes is the man who mocked his friend’s pseudo-wisdom and was envious of him at the same time. That man was Socrates, who was made ridiculous by Aristophanes in his play, The Clouds. But in that play, we see a Socrates who is both a sophist as well as what we would call a pre-Socratic philosopher. He is the Socrates before the second sailing, before Socrates actually becomes a political philosopher. Before Socrates, the philosophers spoke of nature, of being or non-being, of light and darkness, of flux, of atoms, and so on as abstractions apart from everyday life. The Socrates who was interested in these things really looked absolutely ridiculous to Aristophanes, and he was able to make Socrates look entirely useless to anyone, because that Socrates was probably very smart, but he had to start again in philosophy by becoming the first political philosopher.
Aristophanes also did something remarkable and influential. He created various regimes like the Assembly of Women which are ridiculous, but which also cast light on the political problems of the day. Aristophanes’ comedy is heavily political and very anti-war. Also, Aristophanes is one of the most obscene writers in literature, and yet he is a great influence on Plato, who nods to the poet by imitating him as well.
Aristophanes is the old accuser of Socrates, Socrates tells us in his Apology. But that Socrates is not the Socrates who is on trial. Socrates secured philosophy into the everyday of the city and changed his life that overcame the objections and ridicule of Aristophanes. Plato, in effect, writes about what that change in Socrates’ life is and means.
I conclude this reading now, but not before I say this: From this reading, you can see that Strauss’s interest is philosophy, not Neocon politics. Sadly, many people have decided to use Strauss for political ends that have to do with Strauss’s life as a philosopher. Regrettably, Strauss has been cast a conventional kind of conservative that we find today, which Strauss was never near that. Moreover, those who hate what the current Neocons, mostly from liberals and left, do not understand that the conservatives have unjustly appropriated Strauss and have totally and absolutely ignored him as a philosopher. They have politicized Strauss in a way that is wrong. If you are not familiar with Strauss, don’t listen to anything anyone says of him. Read him yourself and find out.