THE PLATONISM OF LEO STRAUSS: A Reply to Harry Jaffa
By Thomas L. Pangle
The editor has invited me to respond to Harry Jaffa's attack in his "Legacy of Leo Strauss" (Claremont Review of Books, vol. III, no. 3, Fall 1984). I do so after considerable hesitation. My initial instinct was to follow the advice implicit in the sage words of Solomon (Proverbs 29:9). But the urging of friends whose judgment I respect, and my own second thoughts, have inclined me to the view that I cannot avoid replying-if only to defend my good name and to warn unsuspecting readers of the fallaciousness of Jaffa's authoritative-sounding censure. The truth is, Jaffa is guilty of gross misinterpretation: For reasons known only to him and to God, he has distorted beyond recognition my interpretation of Strauss and of the political philosophizing Strauss resuscitated.
Jaffa characterizes my interpretation in these terms: "According to Pangle, the admiration for the noble and just things is not according to nature . . . Pangle's account of the noble and just things is . . . nothing but an account of the high in the light of the low" (Jaffa, op. dr., pp. 18-19). Now, near the beginning of my essay, I spoke as follows:
What then is Plato's conception of the problem of justice, according to Strauss? Justice in the fullest sense comes to sight, in what men say about it, as an object of aspiration; as the "common good" which binds men together in mutual dedication in a political community. Most of the time, to be sure, the concern with justice is limited to much more partial questions about mine and thine. But these questions depend on some implicit answer, however imprecise, to the question of the overriding purposes of the community. These highest goals cannot be adequately defined in terms of the requirements which are ubiquitous in social life and which, for this reason as well as because of their urgency, present themselves as at first sight the most reasonable candidates for primacy-viz., the needs for physical comfort and safety. Man is such a being as cannot orient himself merely by the good, understood as what is useful for survival, health, and material ease. He is always aware of sacred restraints on the means he may employ to pursue these needs; what is more, he is aware that it is sometimes necessary, nay, praiseworthy and admirable, to relinquish or sacrifice the satisfaction of these needs. The choice of means, and the capacity for sacrifice, is dictated by the human concern for virtue or excellence. The virtues are indeed useful, for the pursuit of the mundane goals mentioned; but they are also valued as ends in themselves. They are honored as being noble. It is this dimension of what man values-the noble, the estimable or precious that cannot be reduced to the good or useful-which displays man's peculiarly moral mode of being. It is no accident that in Greek the word for noble (kalon) designates at the same time "beautiful." The noble and the beautiful originally belong together. We experience the noble as preeminently deserving of or calling for adornment and enshrinement; and the decorative or "aesthetically" pleasing we experience as in need of a seriousness which it finds only in association with the noble. Hence the kalon comes into its own in the works of the artists, and especially the poets: the demiourgoi, the "public workers" of the highest order. It is there that a people sees in the least fleeting and least nebulous way what kinds of human beings it reveres. Nevertheless, the peculiar luminosity of the virtues as they appear in the "imitations" of the artists does not necessarily promote a clear account of the noble. It remains much easier to point to particular instances of the noble or virtuous than to explain what the noble as such is; and the noble is never free for long from controversy. The source of the dispute is usually not doubt as to whether the virtues exist, or even what they are in general: there is remarkably broad agreement on the nobility of attributes such as courage, generosity, wisdom, law-abidingness, and so on. Battles tend to develop rather over the specifications, and, what is graver, the relative ranking of the virtues (e.g., the virtues of war vs. those of peace; humility vs. pride; generosity and love of leisure vs. thrift and industry). These quarrels mingle with, at once elevating and intensifying, the more frequent causes of discord arising from competition for scarce resources. The disputes thus become, in more concrete terms, disputes over the superiority of distinct human types or classes and their claims to highest moral and political authority: priests, soldiers, merchants, small farmers, gentry, lawyers, wage laborers, etc., vie for preponderance in the political order. Insofar as each of these factions possesses a comprehensive vision of the proper distribution of goods and the ordering of the ways of life in the whole community, each is understood, in Platonic terms, to represent a specific "regime" (politeia). The conflicts among the various "regimes" are the decisive conflicts at the root of all political life; and it is the aim of Platonic political philosophy in the narrow or strict sense to arbitrate these conflicts.
It does so chiefly by setting forth a single standard, the "best regime by nature," in the light of which the competing regimes that emerge in history can be judged, categorized, and-in favorable circumstances-"mixed" in judicious compromises. (pp. 6-7)
Willfully ignoring this and other kindred passages, Jaffa adduces a long quotation from my Introductory Essay, a quotation literally ripped out of context. In its context, the passage is obviously and explicitly meant to summarize Strauss's account of pre-Socratic philosophy, the philosophy against which Socrates, according to Strauss, turned.
Unfortunately, this is by no means the worst of Jaffa's falsifications. The leitmotif of my essay, and I believe of Strauss's work, is made explicit in the culminating section of my essay (a section entitled "The Theological-Political Problem"). There I define this "Problem" as follows:
. . . it signifies, most simply put, the apparently irresolvable conflict between the claims of reason and of revelation. That conflict, Strauss learned first from Spinoza, is as much a political as it is a "theological" or "philosophical" problem. For revelation cannot be adequately understood if it is approached merely as "religious experience" in the sense of William James and other "psychologists of religion." Revelation is the authoritative disclosure to man of Divine Law-the Torah, the Chari'a, the "Old Law" and the "New Law"; this rule of law claims to give the ultimate direction to the whole of man's existence, collective as well as individual or familial. (pp. 19-20)
I proceed to raise and attempt to answer the question, "Why then does the theological-political problem dominate the project of Platonic political philosophy as Strauss understands it, and just what form does the problem assume?" (pp. 19-20). Jaffa, however, informs the unsuspecting reader that "Pangle, having admitted that for Strauss the theological-political problem is central, treats it as peripheral" (Jaffa, p. 18). He supports this claim with an argument so contrived that it strains one's faith in his sobriety: since "The Theological-Political Problem" is discussed by Pangle in the sixth of the seven titled sections into which his Introduction is divided" (p. 17), the problem is not treated as central. But Jaffa does not stop at this. He goes on to manufacture a quotation: "At the center of Pangle's position is the judgment that, according to Strauss, the Bible is only 'one of many' kinds of 'poetry.'" (Jaffa, p. 17). The phrase in quotations, in this sentence, appears nowhere in the text of my essay. And at no point, even by implication, do I commit the absurdity of "attributing to Strauss" the "view that the Bible is a species of poetry" (Jaffa, p. 17). On the contrary, I say: "Strauss did not overlook, he rather brought out and stressed, the enormous differences between biblical thought and the thought of the Greek poets" (Pangle, p. 20); four pages later I lay stress on the fact that Strauss regarded the "faith of his fathers," the "Torah," as "the most profound and intransigent version of the alternative to philosophy posed by revelation."
But I also say-and here we reach a serious issue-that according to Strauss, "what is most essential in the quarrel between Plato and the Bible is already present in the quarrel between Plato and the poets or in the muted dispute between Socrates and Ischomachus the perfect gentleman or kaloskagathos in Xenophon's Oeconomicus" (Pangle, p. 20). To this thought Jaffa takes strong exception, and this thought, I contend, is the very core of Strauss's rediscovery of what he intransigently held to be the full adequacy of the Platonic understanding of the ultimate questions for man as man. Plato never read or heard of the Bible; but despite this, Strauss was convinced of the truth of the solemn asseveration of Avicenna which Strauss chose as his epigraph for the last book published in his lifetime: "the treatment of prophecy and the Divine Law is contained in . . . the Laws." (I might add that in quoting Avicenna, Strauss condenses so as to make the point even more relentless than it appears in the very bold original.) Strauss's full meaning becomes clear only after a close and thorough study of The Argument and the Action of Plato's Laws, but a passage near the beginning (pp. 6-7) is especially helpful in teaching us about Platonic "dialectic" and its most serious theme, what Strauss in Xenophon's Socratic Discourse (p. 192) called "the most serious of all arts or sciences, theology." The Athenian Stranger, Strauss says,
proceeds like Socrates, who prefers to take issue with the poets' stories about gods and heroes rather than with the stories embodied in public worship. . . . The Athenian . . . engages in a kind of dialogue with Tyrtaios who, being a poet, had praised not the fruits of war but the virtue of war. The conversation thus turns from war (or peace) to virtue as choiceworthy for its own sake as the end of legislation. . . . the Athenian quotes Theognis, a poet of a later age. . . . Since he does not take issue with Theognis, he does not engage in a dialogue with him. . . . every legislator who is not entirely worthless, and hence in particular the Cretan legislator, who was instructed by Zeus, will give his laws with a view above all to the greatest virtue. . . . To the Cretan's remark, which is free from indignation, that this demand amounts to a condemnation of the Cretan legislator, the Athenian . . . appeals as it were from the accepted interpretation of revelation to revelation itself, which discloses its true meaning only to those who never forget that, being divine, it is supremely reasonable. . . . The Athenian delineates now what we may call the natural beginning of an inquiry into divine legislation as distinguished from the beginning imposed on him by the opinion of his interlocutors. The latter beginning, concerned with the origin of the Dorian laws, led to what the Cretan regarded as the most just answer. The natural beginning is concerned with the end with a view to which divine laws must be supposed to have been given; it leads to an answer that is both true and just. (My emphasis)
If Jaffa believes that the "most essential" issue regarding prophecy or the Divine Law emerged only after the time of Plato, or in texts unknown to Plato; if he supposes that the most essential issue was not and could not have been addressed by Plato's philosophic spokesman in his dialogue with the poets and the statesmen and gentlemen who are the poets' followers-then it seems to me Jaffa has either broken with Strauss's teaching or failed to comprehend it.
The disservice Jaffa has tried to do me is probably less significant, in the long run, than this misunderstanding or misrepresentation of Strauss. The serious disagreement I have with Jaffa's reading of Strauss will become more fully apparent to anyone who reads my Introductory Essay with care and with the requisite attentiveness to the texts of Strauss I cite. Here I will only add the observation that Jaffa's attempt to explain what Strauss meant by the "theological-political problem" seems to me fundamentally confused. Jaffa is aware, somehow or dimly, that the Bible and Plato are deeply at odds over "the right way of life"-that they disagree, in the final analysis, over what is right and wrong. For the Bible, as Jaffa says, "God's promises to man" are "the ground of the knowledge of the right way of life." Accordingly, "fear and loving obedience are what is demanded of man, and actions following from such fear and love . . . constitute the right way for man." But "for the philosopher there are only eternal questions" (Jaffa, pp. 17-18). Now Strauss, in Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, links this profound difference to the fact that, as regards moral virtue, what is taught by the Bible represents "a very different message" from what is taught by Aristotle's Ethics. Strauss underlines Aristotle's praise of magnanimity and depreciation of shame, in contrast to Isaiah's "implicit condemnation of magnanimity" and "implicit vindication of the sense of shame": "Who is right?" Strauss asks, "the Greeks or the Jews? Athens or Jerusalem?" (p. 210; cf. the epigraph to Jaffa's early work, Thomism and Aristotelianism). Jaffa, however, wishes now to insist that the Bible and Plato (or Aristotle) form a common moral front-not just for many or most practical issues (as of course they do)-but on the very highest level, for the decisive issue. In particular, he argues that Platonic political philosophy joins piety in condemning unqualifiedly "Epicureanism," or ancient philosophic materialism. Jaffa goes so far as to declare that Strauss or his Platonism joins in Halevi's moral attack on "the philosophers" (Jaffa, pp. 19-20).
Jaffa is able to do this-to identify without qualification Plato's moral stance, or conception of the best life, with that of the Bible-only by in effect abandoning Plato's claim that philosophy (Socrates) gives the guidance to human existence; Jaffa erroneously claims that because "for the philosopher there are only eternal questions," it follows that "there is never any sufficient answer to the quest for the right way of life" (Jaffa, pp. 19-20). The Platonic Socrates arrived, on the contrary, at the following "momentous" conclusion (as Strauss calls it): "the greatest good for a human being is this-each day to make arguments about virtue and about the other matters concerning which you have heard me examining myself and others . . ." (Apol. Soc. 38a; cf. Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, pp. 14, 21, 50, 138-39, 210). It is ultimately-though only ultimately-on this basis that the Athenian Stranger can claim to know the criterion or goal by which "revelation"-not just this or that revelation, but "revelation itself"-can and must be judged or validated.
To obscure this is to take the heart out of Platonic political philosophy, to mask or remove the truly fundamental issue-the quarrel between the Bible and Plato over the right way of life for man as man. Having done this, Jaffa is driven to characterize the quarrel in abstract and metaphysical, rather than in concrete moral or political or human terms: "The issue between Plato and the Bible is that between the ideas and the one God" (Jaffa, p. 18).
Against this view, I believe, stands the teaching of Strauss, a teaching reaffirmed in his last book. Strauss was unswerving and unhesitating in his confession of indebtedness to Maimonides' and Farabi's interpretation of Plato and of the relation between Plato's philosophy and Biblical revelation. It was Farabi-Strauss stressed-who first dared to present Plato's philosophy as a whole without any reference whatsoever to the Ideas. What Strauss learned in this regard from Farabi he summed up in what Homer would have called winged words:
It would be rash to maintain that the foregoing observations suffice for establishing what Farabi believed as regards any substantiae separatae. They do suffice however for justifying the assertion that his philosophy does not stand or fall with the acceptance of such substances. For him, philosophy is the attempt to know the essence of all beings: his concept of philosophy is not based on any preconceived opinion as to what allegedly real things are truly real things. He has infinitely more in common with a philosophic materialist than with any un-philosophic believer however well-intentioned. (My emphasis). . . . A man such as Farabi doubtless had definite convictions . . . but what made him a philosopher, according to his own view of philosophy, were not those convictions, but the spirit in which they were acquired, in which they were maintained and in which they were intimated rather than preached from the housetops. Only by reading Maimonides' Guide against the background of philosophy thus understood, can we hope eventually to fathom its unexplored depths. ("Farabi's Plato," pp. 36-37*)
Both the Bible on the one hand, and Farabi's or Maimonides' and Strauss's Plato, on the other hand, firmly support civic and moral virtue: but in what spirit, with what end or ends in view, and, above all, for the sake ultimately of what way of life?
With another interlocutor, one might fruitfully pursue these and related questions. But Jaffa's shrill polemics render him ineligible as a dialectical partner, for Jaffa seems to have lost his understanding of, or his capacity for, philosophic disputation. He seems to have become incapable of vigorously arguing issues in moral and political theory without labeling his opponents or their views immoral. The tone and methods that mark his argumentation are becoming all too familiar to those who take wearisome note of his ceaseless logomachy. But he seems to be descending to new levels: not only the misuse of quotations wrenched from their contexts, and the bare-faced invention of false quotations, but in addition the deployment of textually unsupported innuendo, designed to convince the reader of the opponent's knavery: "there is more than a suggestion that Pangle really believes not in a Platonic conquest of poetry by philosophy, but in a Nietzschean conquest of philosophy by poetry (the ‘will to power')" (Jaffa, p. 17). And then finally, of course, after the reader has been suitably prepared by such innuendo, comes the outright character assassination: 'Pangle's supermen are those who . . . having learned to treat with contempt the opinion with which Leo Strauss associates himself . . . will have nature's bonbons at their disposal. . . . Aristotle says that there is no such thing as 'committing adultery with the right woman, at the right time, and in the right way,' but Aristotle, like Leo Strauss, apparently lacked the iron self-discipline to liberate himself from the sway of opinion. For that, we turn to Hugh Hefner and Playboy. Pangle's hero-his 'truly free man'-is free from any inner attachment to anything noble or just . . . this monster-'beast-god'-is himself simply contemptible" (Jaffa, p. 19).
If nothing can excuse, can anything explain this performance? The mischievous cleverness that is at work in Jaffa's "review" rules out any possibility that his present speech is the sad result of declining mental powers. The problem lies not in Jaffa's mind but in his heart. I do not pretend to read hearts or hidden motives, but Jaffa's lack of restraint is so great that at the outset of his piece he cannot forbear expressing the fierce and wounded sense of self-importance that animates his reaction to his having not been chosen to write the Introduction to Strauss's last work: referring to the Strauss-Cropsey History of Political Philosophy, Jaffa petulantly reminds us that "Strauss had chosen me to write the chapter on 'Aristotle,' which immediately follows his chapter on 'Plato'" (Jaffa, p. 14). Why do I draw attention to this unseemly mikropsuchia? Because the time has come when Professor Jaffa's followers and friends (including the editors of this journal) ought to face the unseemly truth and reflect on their duty in regard to it. I conclude by addressing to those followers and friends of Professor Jaffa a serious plea and question. Years past, Professor Jaffa wrote books from which we all have learned and which deserve to be passed down, in honor, to posterity. For the sake of protecting the reputation of those works and their author, cannot more be done—is it not your obligation to do more—to dissuade your elder from appearing before the world in such demeaning postures, and in the grip of such disfiguring passions?
*This essay appeared originally in 1945, in the Louis Ginsberg Jubilee Volume of the American Academy for Jewish Research; it has recently been reprinted in Arthur Hyman, ed., Essays in Medieval Jewish and Islamic Philosophy: Studies from the Publications of the American Academy for Jewish Research (New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1977).