The Magazine

All You Need Is Love

A new book on Plato's Symposium by Leo Strauss!

Sep 3, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 47 • By MARK BLITZ
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FINDING A NEW BOOK by the political philosopher Leo Strauss more than a generation after his death in 1973 is as startling and unexpected as discovering a lost manuscript by Bach in some dark and remote German basement. Strauss has become famous among American conservatives as an opponent of relativism or historicism and as a friend of natural right or law. His rediscovery of natural standards led to a fresh and salutary look by some of his students at how equal natural rights, not arbitrary power or chance, form the bedrock of the United States. We are shaped neither by flighty preferences and values, nor by dumb and brutal materialism. Rich and permanent nature is our measure, and it guides us to a government designed to secure our liberty through constitutional limits.

Nature, however, is not exhausted by natural rights, and Strauss’s importance is not only—or primarily—political. He teaches us that to understand nature more completely and, therefore, to go beyond even political good sense, we must examine the writings of ancient authors, of Plato, Aristotle, and their Christian, Jewish, and Muslim followers. We must then explore the transformation in understanding that begins with Machiavelli, culminates politically in countries based on natural rights, and proceeds to ignore or forget nature in the name of historicism and positivism. Strauss is known not merely as an opponent of relativism in politics but as an advocate of serious education through the unstinting study of the great thinkers who wrote about reason and nature.

We can grasp many of these thinkers only if we recognize that authors often write with systematic irony, employing extraordinary skill to at once protect decent conventions and liberate us from them. Strauss also is famous or notorious for discovering the not very egalitarian fact that many thinkers wrote "esoterically," using the same words to say different things to different people. The radical disjunction and extraordinary connection between political justice and philosophical freedom that is the source of "esotericism" was for him a central question. The uncompromising path of basic questioning is linked to, but not identical with, sound politics and serious education. The true dimensions of Strauss’s achievement become evident only philosophically.

As Strauss’s notoriety and fame have grown since his death, comprehension of his works has in some ways suffered. His writings are looked at by many almost exclusively through political eyes. Unfriendly or untutored academics pester his reputation with bad books and articles. His own students emphasize the aspects of his work most congenial to them and sometimes lose sight of the whole. "Strauss" is becoming an object of scholars and a name for journalists to drop—and his genuine presence and power threaten to recede from view.

Leo Strauss on Plato’s Symposium is especially welcome because it fights these tendencies. It arrives fresh, it enables us to see Strauss alive in the classroom addressing himself to students and answering their questions, and its topic, love, is obviously alluring and important. The manuscript has not yet been subjected to our academic death grip and frozen for intellectual examination.

Strauss agreed forty years ago to allow the transcript of his seminar on the Symposium to be published, as long as Seth Benardete, the editor, provided better translations than were then available of the passages in the Symposium read in class. Benardete reports that Strauss rejected the first version but accepted the second. "For several reasons," the manuscript "never saw the light of day" and was then lost. Benardete has now reconstructed it, using the superb translation of the Symposium he has since published. Several gaps in the tapes from which the transcript was made, however, could not be filled in. We therefore have a work for which Strauss is both accountable and not accountable, something from which we can learn but which we should not treat as gospel.