Strauss on Plato

"Strauss on Plato," University of Chicago lecture, 1993. In The Argument of the Action, 2000.


“What philosophy is seems to be inseparable from the question of how to read Plato. Almost no philosopher after Plato wrote at length about philosophy, and from antiquity at least there are few notices that inform us about the principles of Platonic writing. Three, however, stand out; the first two, in Plutarch and Cicero, respectively, point directly to the issue of esotericism; the third, in Aelian, to the very nature of philosophy. Plutart implies that by the subordination of natural necessities to more divine principles Plato made philsoophy safe for the city, and in Tusculan Disputations, Cicero remarks that he followed the way of Socrates, as it was made known by Plato, in his own dialogues, in concealing his own opinions, relieving the errors of others, and seeking in every dispute that is most like to the truth. Aelian tells the story of the painter Pauson who was hired to paint a racehorse rolling in dust and instead painted it running, and when his patron objected Pausn told him to turn it upside down and Aelian says there was much to talk to the effect that this resembles the speeches of Socrates. It was the extraordinary merit of Leo Strauss to experience the import of these three remarks (among others) and render them to the life in his own writings on Plato and elsewhere. This acheivement amounts to, in my opinion, as great a recovery as that of al-Farabi, who rediscovered philosophy in the tenth century. The common threat in their discovery was no doubt their common understanding of revelation as the alternative to philosophy; but since after paganism the three revealed religions were already infected by philosophy to various degrees, they had to recover revelation in its true form at the same time as they recovered its opposite. For both purposes, Plato’s Laws was their guide. As a recovery, theirs might sem of less significance than the original discovery; but as both al-Farabi and Strauss knew, the original discovery was not itself at the beginning of philosophy. Philosophy had to be rediscovered by Socrates long after there had been philosophy. Plato has Socrates call his rediscovery a second sailing. The second sailing is philosophy, and it is never first. The false start of philosophy can alone jumpstart philosophy.”