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Monday, February 03, 2003

Book Reviews

The Straussian Method

Leo Strauss On Plato’s Symposium edited with a foreword by Seth Benardete. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2001, 320 pages, $39.

In 1959, Leo Strauss taught a course in political philosophy on Plato’s Symposium at the University of Chicago. This book is basically a transcript of that course, drawn from tapes of the lectures and edited by Seth Benardete. His able editing preserves the informality and charm of the lecture format: Strauss often engages in asides, summarizes previous points that sometimes shed striking new light on what he has said, and responds to questions during the lecture. There are even occasional breaks when the tape was being changed and a few sentences of Strauss’s lecture were lost.

Since Strauss usually confined himself, both in print and in his courses, to Plato’s overtly “political” dialogues (Republic, Laws, Apology, Statesman, etc.), and since his opening words of this particular course are, “This course will be on Plato’s political philosophy,” it is striking, as Benardete acknowledges in his foreword, that Strauss should here choose to elicit Plato’s political philosophy in a course devoted entirely to a careful interpretation of the Symposium, a dialogue not usually characterized as fundamentally political. Indeed, Strauss himself acknowledges explicitly that “whereas Plato’s Republic can be said to be the political dialogue, we will tentatively say that the Symposium is the most emphatically nonpolitical dialogue of Plato, insofar as he deals with that element in man which is in essential tension with the political element” (p. 10).

Nevertheless, in Strauss’s hands, all sorts of political themes and implications are emphasized. For this reason, Alcibiades plays a particularly important role in Strauss’s reading. Alcibiades and two other participants in the Symposium, Phaedrus and Eryximachus, were widely believed to have been involved in a scandal that rocked Athens around the dramatic time that the Symposium supposedly takes place, the so-called profanation of the Eleusinian mysteries and the mutilation of the Hermae. One guiding theme of Strauss’s interpretation of the dialogue is that the real profanation of the mysteries, in which the secret mysteries of Eros are revealed to the public, is the Symposium itself. In a way, then, the dialogue is a qualified defense of Alcibiades: the true profaner of the mysteries was not him but, at least ultimately and after due attention to the elaborate dramatic structure of the Symposium, Socrates himself (p. 24).

After some brief introductory remarks, Strauss proceeds in the course to go through the Symposium from beginning to end with the exquisite care that was the mark of his work. Thus, we have careful readings of the dramatic setting, each of the speeches prior to that of Socrates, the interludes between speeches, and, of course, a long interpretation of Socrates’ speech, followed by that of Alcibiades and concluding with a discussion of the dialogue’s dramatic ending.

Leo Strauss was, of course, a notoriously cautious writer. A widely circulated rumor alleges that this course was kept from publication all these years, and circulated quietly among the inner circle of Strauss’s students, precisely in order to keep it from “the many.” As a record of a lecture course, this book reveals a Strauss just a bit more informal, less guarded, than was his wont. In my judgment, this brings out even more vividly both the best of Strauss’s interpretive procedure and, especially in the eyes of his critics, what is most problematic about it. Let me address both issues briefly.

Strauss is well-known for espousing as a guiding principle of Platonic interpretation the “law of logographic necessity,” the presumption that every word of a Platonic dialogue must be assumed to have been self-consciously and carefully chosen by Plato, and thus that there is absolutely nothing that is said or happens in the dialogues that is not potentially important to an adequate interpretation. Nowhere to my knowledge is this principle exhibited more fully and richly than in this interpretation of the Symposium. As many times as I have read, taught, and written on this dialogue, Strauss still surprises me again and again by noticing some small detail and showing that it can be understood as an important, if implicit and subtle, commentary on what is happening in the work.

He notes, for example, that although both the Republic and Laws, among other dialogues, have extended discussions of poetry and its contentious relation to philosophy, the Symposium is the only dialogue in which Socrates explicitly confronts poets (Aristophanes and Agathon) (p. 8). Since the discussion that ensues among them is characterized (by Agathon) as a wisdom contest (Symposium, 175e), the dialogue can then be understood as a seminal moment in what Socrates himself characterizes in the Republic as the “long-standing quarrel” between poetry and philosophy. Connected to this, Strauss notes that the “wisdom contest” of the Symposium is prefigured in Aristophanes’ Frogs (in the contest between Aeschylus and Euripides judged by Dionysus) so that “the Symposium is the reply of Plato to Aristophanes’ Frogs” (p. 26).

A second example of Strauss’s exquisitely careful reading: He notices that in the dramatic opening of the dialogue, Agathon appears to be very “liberal” by inviting his slaves to act as if they were free men entertaining guests, yet when Socrates fails to come into his house immediately on arrival, Agathon has no hesitation about several times telling a slave to compel Socrates to enter. It is Aristodemus who protects Socrates by insisting that he be left alone (p. 32). This enables Strauss to see an important prefiguration of the problem of both freedom and tyranny that is an unavoidable issue in any adequate understanding of Eros, and that, as he shows, plays itself out in important ways in a number of speeches in the dialogue.

A final example illustrates especially well how Strauss is able to draw out important political themes from the Symposium. In the Apology, Socrates is accused, among other things, of “introducing new divinities” into Athens, which is the basis of the impiety charge against him. As Strauss observes, the early speakers in the Symposium, and quite especially Aristophanes, by asserting that Eros is a god and even, as Aristophanes insists, the “most philanthropic of the gods,” are in fact the ones introducing “new divinities” into Athens, since Eros is not normally worshipped in the city but is instead “a little god, not the object of public worship in Athens” (p. 128). So we have the irony of Plato presenting Aristophanes, the behind-the-scenes accuser of Socrates, of committing the very crime of which he criticizes Socrates, while Socrates, in reporting Diotima’s denial that Eros is a god, restores proper Athenian piety.

Part of Strauss’s genius was to notice apparently small things in the dialogues and suggest that they were not small at all, that they in fact embodied important “Platonic” teachings. Critics of Strauss, however, often see this capacity negatively, as often making very large mountains out of very small molehills. They, too, will find that this problem is sometimes exacerbated in these somewhat less-formal lectures. Three examples follow of rather considerable leaps by Strauss on the basis of small evidence indeed.

In his analysis of Phaedrus’ speech, and making much of the fact that Phaedrus cites Parmenides, Strauss states boldly that Plato “regarded Parmenides as the most important of all earlier philosophers” (p. 47). His evidence? That Plato entitled one of his dialogues after him. But he also entitled dialogues after people like Phaedrus, for instance. Does that indicate that Plato regarded this person as having such high status?

A second example begins his discussion of Pausanias’ speech. He cites the well-known tripartite divisions of the soul in the Phaedrus and Republic. Comparing them rather loosely to the much less known and far less obvious tripartition that he finds in Eros between heterosexual love, love of immortal fame, and love of wisdom — couldn’t one just as plausibly call it a dualism of love of the body and love of the soul, or cite the famous ascent passage at 210a and list all the stages in that ascent? — he concludes rather astonishingly, “How these two tripartitions are related is a question. He who could give a true answer to that question could claim to have understood Plato’s doctrine of man” (p. 57). To say the least, that is rather a large jump.

Finally, in his discussion of Diotima’s speech, referring to 207c2-6, in which the young Socrates acknowledges that his lack of understanding of erotic things means that he needs “teachers,” Strauss seizes on Socrates’ use of the plural here and takes it to indicate his dissatisfaction with Diotima’s teaching (p. 219)! Given that Socrates acknowledges at the end of his speech that he agrees with Diotima’s teaching, Strauss would surely need more evidence than this to support such a striking and important claim.

In certain ways, Strauss’s writing, especially as it is exhibited in this remarkable book from which so much is to be learned, reminds one of the writing of Martin Heidegger. While insisting that his “single thought” is the question of Being, and while entitling book after book as questions (The Question of Being, What is a Thing? What is called Thinking/What Calls for Thinking? What Is Philosophy? etc.), Heidegger nevertheless remains the most assertive and self-certain of philosophers. In a similar way, while Strauss reminds us again and again that his interpretation is tentative, that only when one has complete interpretations of all the dialogues and their interconnections can one be said to understand Plato’s teaching, and so on, his actual claims, as I think they are exhibited in the quoted passages, embody the most remarkable self-assurance. In this, both thinkers remind one of Socrates, that paradoxically most humble and most arrogant of men, who in the same dialogue insists, most humbly, that he is not wise, and yet, most arrogantly, that he is the wisest of men.

Drew A. Hyland is Charles A. Dana professor and chairman of philosophy at Trinity College.
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