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.
The heart of Strauss’s lectures on the Symposium is a careful commentary on Plato’s dialogue, and the dialogue is a subtle and comprehensive exploration of the amazingly varied topic of eros, or love, in all its complexity. Strauss intends to direct our attention to eros as Plato portrays it and, therefore, to eros itself. Among Strauss’s most novel, telling, and helpful observations is his statement that eros is of special importance because it is "somehow" Plato’s contention that eros is "the nature of man and, in a way, the nature of the whole." That is, love is not chiefly a matter of passion, friendship, or attraction—to either physical or moral beauty. These phenomena must be accounted for by eros, and Plato displays them in his characters and in what they say. Indeed, Strauss claims that Plato’s dialogues make evident his superiority to his great rivals in wisdom, the poets, precisely because he is able "by virtue of [his] deeper understanding of the principles" to make transparent in men "the manifestation of the principles."
Because eros is so comprehensive, it must also "somehow" be the foundation of politics. Yet as Strauss points out, politics’ characteristic passion is spiritedness—and spiritedness, together with the anger and the severity associated with it, seems to be in tension with love. Strauss carefully considers this tension throughout his Symposium lectures, exploring, for example, the dual origin of the gods—both in the the love of beauty and as agents of avenging justice. The tension of love and politics can be understood better if we see that although each of Plato’s dialogues stands alone, nonetheless "every dialogue is connected with every other dialogue but sometimes in a very indirect way." The Laws, obviously about politics, is "the only dialogue which begins with the word god," but the apparently apolitical Symposium is the only dialogue whose explicit theme is a god—namely, eros.
From the third chapter to the book’s conclusion, Strauss’s method is to explicate the Symposium’s six speeches about love (together with the dialogue’s seventh speech, Alcibiades’ concluding encomium to Socrates), and to relate the speeches to each speaker’s character and desires. The summaries Strauss offers of his own previous discussions, together with his colloquies with students, enable us to see him develop his thought. "I am not only willing but eager to learn that I am wrong," he says at one point. Nonetheless, the overall impression is one of striking mastery and consistency from beginning to end.
Strauss argues that the Symposium’s speeches are ordered in an ascent. The first three fail to praise love itself (the task that the first speaker, Phaedrus, had given the party). Instead, they "subject eros to something outside" or alien to it: the beloved’s selfish gain, moral virtue, science, or art. Strauss brings out his conclusions with convincing subtlety, finding the central nerve in each speech. Especially revealing is his analysis of the speech by the physician Eryximachus. "The background of this speech is the philosophy of Empedocles," and it is "as far as my knowledge goes the only document in a philosophic text prior to Plato where the notion of science for the sake of power, the famous Baconian formula, is somehow approached." Eryximachus’ view of love is one in which "there is no hierarchy, and the distinction between good and bad must come from a subjective point of view." The speech proves to be a central ancient text for exploring in advance what would come to reality in modern times with the dominance of technology.
Indeed, the Symposium as a whole is a partial antidote to submission to technology’s dominance. What technological manipulation is able to create is necessarily limited and directed by the nature of passion and reason—and by the objects of passion and reason as we understand and experience those objects in the world. We may change the means by which we experience. We may even try to eliminate human experience altogether. But we cannot change the meanings and possible fulfillments inherent in our actions. And when we ignore what is inherent—when we have a distorted understanding of the intricacy of human experience—what we create is frighteningly narrow and often monstrous. In opposition to all this, the Symposium shows us the openness of love to what is good, and it is therefore an indispensable guide in our technological age.
Strauss’s discussion of the final four speeches begins with an extraordinary analysis of the argument Aristophanes offers in the dialogue. Aristophanes gives a brilliant account of love as two halves of an original unity searching for each other, and Strauss shows how profoundly that image brings out the nature of love’s rebellious power and its tension with convention, divine law, or "civilization," without which men "cannot become men."
Agathon, whose victorious tragedy the banquet or "symposium" is celebrating, offers the next opinion about love, one that appears to be completely different from Aristophanes’ view: For Agathon, love is love of the beautiful. Then Socrates gives his own speech, in the form of a dialogue with the prophetess Diotima. Strauss orients his discussion of their conversation around the varied ways in which Diotima subtly connects and differentiates love of one’s own from love of the beautiful. Love is not always love of one’s own, for when we love something noble or beautiful we often forget or even sacrifice ourselves. This duality is at play in parents’ love of their children, in poets’ love of fame through beautiful works, and in philosophers’ love of truth.
Strauss patiently brings out Diotima’s argument that love is, finally, love of the good—more, of "the good being one’s own forever." Love is, as it were, between men and gods, between the mortal and the immortal. The view that love is of the truly good therefore comprehends, and surpasses, the opinions of both Aristophanes and Agathon. In sexual desire for the young and beautiful, for example, beauty is "a means, a decoy." As "a reflection of the mortal in the immortal," beauty is a condition for one’s own "sempiternal possession of the good," namely, "giving birth to offspring."
In the lectures on the Symposium, Strauss summarizes Plato’s understanding of love when he answers a student’s question by extemporaneously observing, "There is a love of the beautiful which is really self-forgetting and which is, in a way, of higher nobility than that love which is not self-forgetting." And yet, Strauss notes, even that selfless love of the beautiful is not the highest form of love—for "the remarkable fact is this: On the highest level, self-forgetting is not possible. Love of the truth is higher than love of beauty, and love of the truth, if it is anything, is something you want to possess. This can be absent in love of the beautiful. That is what Plato means. There is that strange kinship between the highest and the lowest."
The Symposium’s final long speech belongs to Alcibiades, and in his analysis, Strauss brings to a head a topic that has been central throughout the lectures: Socrates himself. Strauss makes clear how Socrates is characterized by a hubris, an insolence that is connected to his famous irony. He indicates how Socrates’ thought and eros has a special purity "directed toward the beautiful, not toward immortality" although "he becomes immortal, perhaps...by generating genuine virtue." And finally Strauss explores whether Socrates’ refusal to write is a consequence of this purity or a deficiency in his spiritedness. What was Socrates missing that his students Plato and Xenophon enjoyed?
Given his concerns, it should not be surprising that the problem of Socrates became an ever more explicit theme in Leo Strauss’s writings during the last decade of his life. This book on the Symposium is a remarkable addition to that remarkable body of work.
Mark Blitz is Fletcher Jones Professor of Political Philosophy and chairman of the department of government at Claremont McKenna College.