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Without Malice But with Forethought: A Response to Burnyeat

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 August 2009


The work of Leo Strauss is not typical of American academics. He has explicitly rejected the premises and methodologies of modern scholarship. In its stead, he claims to have rediscovered other, more ancient methods of discovery to guide his research. As a result, his conclusions do not necessarily reconfirm what we think we already know. Hence his work represents a challenge to current scholarship. For if Strauss 's conclusions are true, then a radical rethinking of the history of philosophy, political philosophy and psychology is required. It would be much easier if we could simply say that Strauss's methods and conclusions are wholly misguided.

Research Article
Copyright © University of Notre Dame 1991

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1. Surprisingly, however, for one who later accuses Strauss of blatant disregard of arguments, Burnyeat does not consider Strauss's arguments in defense of such circles of friends. It would be preferable, Strauss, says in On Tyranny (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1963) if men did not fall into “schools of thought” but, maintaining their philosophical independence, remained open.Google Scholar

2. Here too Burnyeat misreads Strauss. Too quick to judge, indeed to condemn, he is offended by Strauss's insistence that one must be open to the possibility that the author one reads speaks the truth. This applies not only to Plato, but to all authors, including Machiavelli, Descartes, Nietzsche, etc. This would require of Strauss that he take the time to first understand Burnyeat.

3. Burnyeat has adopted a partisan political psychology wherein the spectrum of soul-forms is reduced to two, fascists and liberals. This does not conform to the psychomorphology of any of Plato's writings,

4. Burnyeat is correct to point out that Strauss does not reject modern democracy but finds many aristocratic elements and possibilities therein. Modern representative democracies above all have sought through constitutional safeguards to moderate the extreme tendencies of ancient participatory democracies.

5. As such the indirect or depth construction promotes those very philosophical faculties necessary for all types of discovery.

6. This has to be qualified in two respects. Plato was surely not averse to using the best in contemporary religion to bolster the authority of the city. In addition, Strauss's “defense” of religion is made despite its prejudices and history of persecution. Religious oppression, he seems to think, is easier to moderate than political oppression.

7. Esotericism need not be motivated by narrowly political considerations, see Aquinas, Thomas, Summa Theologica, Q. 1 A.8.Google Scholar

8. He casts doubts on the Seventh Letter of Plato, does not make reference to those philosophers who have taken this seriously (namely Augustine, Farabi, Leibnitz and Shaftesbury etc.), nor doeshe acknowledge the works of non-Straussians Gaiser, Findley and Klein on the subject.

9. There are philosophical reasons as well, ones which a careful rereading of the Meno and attention to Socrates' treatment of the slave-boy exhibit (see Klein's, commentary thereon, A Commentary on Plato's Meno [Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965]).Google Scholar

10. And are not the conclusions of the Phaedo similarly odious to a our equalitarian sensibility: philosophers alone are virtuous and alone achieve immortality?

11. Burnyeat is right to wonder how Strauss's interpretation of the Gorgias (and the principle that one should never return wrong for wrong) would have turned out. We must go back to the text.

12. What of Strauss's observation that this is in fact the form that the education of the guardians takes? They are to be double-natured, like a noble puppy who is fierce to those he does not recognize yet friendly to those he knows. And, though they will plead developing country status to neighboring superpowers, they are, we must remember, to be as fierce as their size and trained abilities will allow. Lest they fall victim to those who would seek their harm or extinction, the guardians have to be strong if the new republic is to be more than a passing curiosity. Moreover, that the auxiliaries will be under the direction of the guardians does not make them any less needed. And that the ruling guardians come out of the ranks of the auxiliaries does not make them any less fierce.

13. It is not at all clear what Burnyeat is insinuating by citing the membership of one of Strauss's student's students on the National Security Council? Does he think, perhaps, we live in an age when we have no need of such councils and habits or that Strauss's philosophy leads to fanaticism, or patriotism, or that philosophy should not amount to more than an idle hobby? Our hopes notwithstanding, man has not changed. Moreover, that members of the Thatcher government read Strauss but philosophers in Britain do not, says as much about the present state of philosophy as it does of the relevance of Strauss.

14. It is hence revealing that Burnyeat's article was accompanied by a political caricature of the aging and ailing Strauss by my namesake.

15. This substantiates Strauss's contention that there can be no genuinely philosophical understanding of politics that excludes a political understanding of philosophy.