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Socrates and the Drama of Western Civilization

  • Shadia B. Drury

Abstract

Reconstructing the political philosophy of Leo Strauss would be an impossible task were it not for the fact that he undoubtedly regarded classical thought as the repository of human wisdom and truth. Strauss presents himself as a classicist. He criticizes the moderns and defends the ancients; he uses ‘classic natural right’ as the standard by which to criticize modernity. He laments the decline of the wisdom of classical antiquity. But we cannot understand what it means to think of Strauss as a classicist unless we realize the extent to which his interpretation of the classics turns the conventional understanding of classical thought on its head.

Keywords

Western Civilization Political Society Political Idea Socratic Dialogue Political Justice 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 3.
    John Gunnell, ‘Political Theory and Politics: The Case of Leo Strauss’, Political Theory, vol. 13, no. 3 (August 1985) pp. 339–61.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 15.
    Ibid., pp. 96, 100; Sigmund Freud, Future of an Illusion, trans. W. D. Robson Scott and revised by James Strachey (New York: Doubleday, 1964) p. 23.Google Scholar
  3. 41.
    LAM, p. 100; see also Harry Neumann, ‘The Unpopularity of Epicurean Materialism: An Interpretation of Lucretius’, The Modem Schoolman, vol. 45 (May 1968) pp. 299–311; Neumann regards Venus as the foundation of the city.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 42.
    LAM, p. 131; cf. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, trans. James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton, 1961) pp. 50ff.Google Scholar
  5. 51.
    Allan Bloom with Harry V. Jaffa, Shakespeare’s Politics (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1964) p. 51.Google Scholar
  6. 62.
    LAM, pp. 118, 119; cf. Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe, trans. R. E. Latham (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1951) bk IV.Google Scholar
  7. 72.
    Albert Camus, The Outsider, trans. Stuart Gilbert (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1942);Google Scholar
  8. see also Walter Berns’s discussion of Camus’s novel in his For Capital Punishment (New York: Basic Books, 1979) pp. 156ff.; Berns finds Camus’s anti-hero despicable because he is ‘self-sufficient’, or unmoved by love or hate, ‘like an animal or a god’, notice the Straussian conception of deity. Gods and animals have in common the fact that they are beyond good and evil, they are not subject to moral laws. Berns’s argument is developed purely from the point of view of social utility: his point is that Mersault is despicable because society cannot survive without men who cry at their mother’s funeral.Google Scholar
  9. 77.
    SA, pp. 6–7; reviewers of this book who are not familiar with Strauss’s other work are baffled by it; see, for example, Douglas J. Stewart’s review in The Classical World, vol. 60 (November 1966–7) pp. 119–20. Stewart is perplexed by Strauss’s fascination with what happens off stage.Google Scholar
  10. See also Michael J. O’Brien’s review in Phoenix, vol. 21 (1967) pp. 231–2.Google Scholar
  11. 101.
    For an original interpretation of SA, see Harry Neumann, ‘Civic Piety and Socratic Atheism: An Interpretation of Strauss’s Socrates and Aristophanes’, Independent Journal of Philosophy, vol. 2 (1978) pp. 33–7. Neumann suggests a further link between the early Socrates and contemporary ‘Socratic culture’. He asserts that Socrates was not simply an atheist, but an inventor of new gods inspired by ‘atheist imaginations’ (p. 37). Socrates destroys the gods of the city and replaces them with new ‘global deities’. The old gods were attached to the city. They were ‘martial’ gods, strong, courageous and patriotic (p. 34). They preferred manliness to effeminacy, anger to compassion, Ares (god of war) to Aphrodite (goddess of love). The old gods were meant to be obeyed not imitated; and they were to be obeyed simply because they were the gods of Athens. In contrast, the Clouds with which Socrates consorts are universal or global goddesses, free from allegiance to any city. They are represented by Aristophanes as women to indicate their effeminacy. This sets them apart from the gods of the city and their ‘martial horizon’ (p. 34). On the new cosmopolitan perspective our city is worthy of love and allegiance only to the extent to which it partakes or participates in the ‘cosmopolitan moralities’. The new deities are therefore to be imitated, not obeyed. Socrates is the inventor of these new global goddesses, and thus, does not believe them to be really divine; he knows they are products of his own mind. The new goddesses invented by Socrates have the effect of transporting into the religious domain the universalism characteristic of science. Socrates therefore sets the stage on which reason and revelation contend, and on which their reconciliation can be conceived. In ancient times, philosophy or science and religion were perceived as opposites, much like nomos and physis. They were not contenders in the same arena. To speak of a contest between them, let alone a reconciliation of opposites, is to introduce a dialectic that presupposes the transformation of the antagonists. We fail to recognize Socrates as an atheist because we are his heirs; our conception of religion has been contaminated by his cosmopolitanism. Neumann goes further. He maintains that universalistic or cosmopolitan religions are impious. They lead to the destruction of all religions, and with them, all moral restraint! In another article, Neumann interprets Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a display of the savagery in which the ‘pious atheism’ of the universalistic or cosmopolitan religions inevitably ends. See ‘Atheistic Freedom and the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs: An Interpretation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness’, Interpretation, vol. 4, no. 2 (Winter 1974) pp. 107–14. The implication is that Christian universalism, or what Nietzsche believed to be Platonism for the masses, is responsible for the barbarism of modern times. Although not substantiated by the text in question, Neumann’s message is consistent with what Strauss says about modernity. The difference is that Neumann, unlike Strauss, attributes these cosmopolitan ideas not to Christianity, but to classical antiquity itself. He is therefore truer to the Nietzschian claim that Christianity is but Platonism for the masses.Google Scholar
  12. 104.
    Ibid., p. 54; see also LAM, p. 7. The same seems to be true of Strauss. He is well known for seeking out young men of promise who absorb his teaching without the ‘midwifery of critical analysis’, to use a phrase from Edward Andrew’s ‘Descent to the Cave’, Review of Politics, vol. 45, no. 4 (October 1983) pp. 510–35.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 127.
    CM, p. 75; WIPP, p. 34; Ariene W. Saxonhouse enlarges on this theme in ‘The Unspoken Theme in Plato’s Gorgias: War’, Interpretation, vol. 11, no. 2 (May 1983) pp. 139–69.Google Scholar
  14. 130.
    CM, pp. 87, 97; OT, p. 94; XS, p. 50; XSD, p. 85; NRH, p. 150, note; Allan Bloom enlarges on this point in the ‘Interpretive Essay’, of his translation of The Republic of Plato (New York: Basic Books, 1968) pp. 317–18.Google Scholar
  15. 132.
    Aristophanes, Wasps, trans. David Barret (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1964); SA, pp. 112–35.Google Scholar
  16. 148.
    XS, p. 76; see also Thomas L. Pangle’s ‘Interpretive Essay’, in his translation of The Laws of Plato (New York: Basic Books, 1980); for Pangle as for Strauss, the Athenian stranger subtly reveals the ‘problematic’ nature of law.Google Scholar
  17. 150.
    See Harry Neumann’s review of XSD, in Journal of the History of Philosophy, vol. 9 (1971) pp. 239–43; see also his review of XS, in Journal of the History of Philosophy, vol. 12 (1974) pp. 252–6; and Stanley Rosen’s review of XS, in The Classical World, vol. 66 (May 1973) pp. 470–1; and Christopher Bruell, ‘Strauss on Xenophon’s Socrates’, Political Science Reviewer, vol. 14 (Fall 1984) pp. 263–318; Bruell is so deeply struck by the complexity and subtlety of Strauss’s style of writing that his commentary follows the text chapter by chapter.Google Scholar
  18. 160.
    OT, p. 88; CM, pp. 83, 88, 91; as with other words there are two meanings to the term ‘common good’: in its political sense it refers to collective interest; in its philosophical sense it refers to a good that is not in the least ‘common’ but is nevertheless the end to which the state is a means — namely, philosophy; see Seth Bernardete, ‘Leo Strauss’s The City and Man’, Political Science Reviewer, vol. 8 (Fall 1978) pp. 1–20; Bernardete’s article is less explicit than the original, but he does make the astute observation that it makes sense to talk of the common good as knowledge because it is the only good that is not by nature private (p. 7).Google Scholar
  19. 177.
    Thomas G. West, Plato’s Apology of Socrates (Ithaca, N.Y., and London: Cornell University Press, 1979), follows Strauss’s interpretation: West notes that the image of Socrates as a gadfly is particularly appropriate in view of the parasitic nature of the philosopher vis-à-vis the city (p. 177);Google Scholar
  20. see also Stewart Umphrey’s discussion of West in ‘Eros and Thumos’, Interpretation, vol. 10 (May and September 1982) pp. 353–422,Google Scholar
  21. West’s reply to Umphrey in ‘Defending Socrates and Defending Politics’, in Thomas B. Silver and Peter W. Schramm (eds), Natural Right and Political Right: Essays in Honor of Harry V. Jaffa (Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1984) pp. 235–49; see also West’s ‘Introduction’ to Plato and Aristophanes: Four Texts On Socrates, Plato’s Euthyphro, Apology and Crito and Aristophanes’s Clouds translated with notes by T. G. West and Grace Starry West (Ithaca, N.Y., and London: Cornell University Press, 1984);Google Scholar
  22. George Anastaplo, ‘Human Being and Citizen: A Beginning to the Study of Plato’s Apology of Socrates’, in Joseph Cropsey (ed.), Ancients and Moderns: Essays on the Tradition of Political Philosophy in Honor of Leo Strauss (New York: Basic Books, 1964) pp. 16–49, relies heavily on Strauss;Google Scholar
  23. Eva Brann, ‘The Offense of Socrates: A Re-Reading of Plato’s Apology’, Interpretation, vol. 7, no. 2 (May 1978) pp. 1–32, also relies heavily on Strauss although he is not mentioned;Google Scholar
  24. Harry Neumann, ‘Plato’s Defense of Socrates: An Interpretation of Ancient and Modern Sophistry’, Liberal Education, vol. 56 (1970) pp. 458–75.Google Scholar

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© Shadia B. Drury 2005

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