Critical Review of Straussian Book

In his review in the NDPR of Richard G. Stevens, Political Philosophy: An Introduction, Cambridge University Press, 2011, 309pp., $27.99 (pbk), ISBN 9780521169011, Peter Simpson takes Stevens to task for his Straussianism. There are lots of good reasons (some mentioned by Stevens) for taking on the claims of Strauss vis-a-vis Plato and much else, but this is not one of them:

Stevens is repeating old wives’ tales, specifically Diotima’s old wife’s tale from Plato’s Symposium. The Symposium is about eros, not philia, and if either of these words connotes the desiring of something one does not yet have, it is eros and not philiaEros means erotic love, which is very often a longing for what one does not have; philia means friendship and is the enjoyment of what one already has. Friendship also betokens equality, so a philosopher is literally someone who is equal friends with wisdom, or someone who is wise and is not merely longing for it (Aristotle, Metaphysics1.2). In the Symposium Plato is engaging in a sort of joke, making it seem as if ‘philosophy’ has been misspelled for ‘erosophy’. He makes the joke clearer at the end by introducing an erosopher, Alcibiades, someone who had eros for wisdom or at least for a wise man, and could never get it or him, and who was, as a result, no philosopher. Has Stevens missed the joke? Or is he, à la Heidegger perhaps, translating Greek terms the way he wants (because meaning is no more unchanging than being)?

Mainly, this is by way of claiming that if philosophy is about seeking wisdom, but not having it, then Strauss has set us adrift on a sea of relativism.

My point: one should not cite Aristotelian distinctions (for example, among sophia, nous, epistemê, etc., or philia and eros) when reading back into Plato, and then claim someone else doesn’t get the joke. There’s an irony here, deeper than the irony of trying to get the last word on all the levels of irony in the Symposium, and thus to claim the final say on its final punch line. What’s notable is that the reviewer says this right after critiquing Heidegger’s notion of historicity, since whatever one thinks of Heidegger, what’s left out of this discussion is a sense of history: Plato’s and particularly the Socratic discourses on the meaning of philosophy is different from Aristotle’s (or indeed with later views that might indeed define philosophia differently). I wish not to defend the Straussians—far from it—but I don’t like mocking another’s reading of a text that shows itself to miss the point: is sophia in Plato or Socrates simply about having knowledge? Is Plato not, as Pierre Hadot among many others, claiming that the task of philosophy in these early-ish works is a performance related to certain virtue (not knowledge, since one would miss how Plato uses sophia, which, again, is not the same as Aristotle—not least because he didn’t set out his terms as well as Aristotle does in, say, Book VI of the Ethics).

If philo-sophia is about having or being with knowledge, then how to make any sense of the Apology (knowing what one doesn’t know)? How to make sense of the central relation between aretê and sophia in Socrates, as given to us especially in Plato’s early works (since the reviewer’s definition would connect to a very theoretical and less practical understanding of sophia)? If you are going to cite Plato’s Seventh Letter, as this author does to support his contention of the implication of philosophy and theology, how can one leave aside claims made there by Plato about the doing and the practice of philosophy—the so-called “wonderful path”?

In other words, the reviewer wants to make the claim that holding to the belief—which he describes as Nietzschean—that philosophy as a seeking of wisdom, without necessarily having it, is somehow “Heideggerian” or “Straussian,” though his reading means that one would have to ignore the trajectory of Plato’s thought and the play within the text he cites (the Symposium) back and forth between the use of philia and eros. That is, one should not argue that for a long time, indeed for the longest time, in what gets dubbed Western philosophy, wisdom has meant having a certain knowledge, and then scorn others who would “believe” the Diotima myth, the latter of which is indeed is in line with the practice of Socrates’ dialogical method and the claims he makes in Plato’s early dialogues; this reviewer would have it be that one is able to declare, once and for all, that philosophy has always been the same (Plato, Aristotle–what’s the difference?), with the upshot that it must remain so (in a very limited definition as being with knowledge, with knowledge understood not as know-how). (Thus, I suppose, Leiter’s approving link to the review.)

Eric Schliesser picks up on another “myth”:

This review is an instance of the common bashing of what I like to call “vulgar Strausianism.” But one line in the review caught my attention: “He [the author of the book under review–ES] does not mention that Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead, thereby proving himself Son of God and Christ.” In context the reviewer might be interpreted as claiming that this is what Christians believe. But after repeated re-reading I am not so sure. Given that the Leitmotif of the review is Straussian myths, this may be a case of the kettle calling the pot…

I will stop myself now, since I have to get to a backlog of emails, though I could spend forever on the meaning of philosophia as it passes through the Platonic discourse. But lastly, the reviewer doesn’t get that philosophia should not be defined by looking at Aristotle’s discussion of friendship (philia), which he implicitly imports here, since the Greeks long had words involving philo- that related to areas of study or objects, not just people, which is the definition he cites: thus philotimia, which was a vain affection for and seeking of honors. And thus philosophia, understood in this latter sense, would indeed fit well with this meaning as a way of living or a being-without in the Symposium, which in turn fits with a usage common in the fifth century BCE.