“We know the good but do not practice it.”

These two unusually interesting collections of studies are in sharp contrast to the contemporary Anglo-Saxon style of academic scholarship. Both authors take seriously the pertinence of classical thought to contemporary discussions of the good. Strauss is even less professorial than Gadamer in that he takes the central issue of our time to be the quarrel between philosophy and religion, a quarrel that is for him of the deepest political significance.

Strauss formulates the political question in “Jerusalem and Athens,” the seventh (a significant number!) of his 15 studies. Speaking of the German-Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen, who attempted to give a Kantian or rationalist interpretation of modern Judaism, Strauss says: “He had a greater faith in the power of modern Western culture to mold the fate of mankind than seems to be warranted now. The worst things that he experienced were the Dreyfus scandal and the pogroms instigated by Czarist Russia: he did not experience Communist Russia and Hitler Germany. More disillusioned regarding modern culture than Cohen was, we wonder whether the two ingredients of modern culture, of the modern synthesis, are not more solid than the synthesis.”

Gadamer’s scope is much narrower, but the connection between his analyses of Plato and Aristotle on the one hand and contemporary politics in the broad sense is indicated by his culminating emphasis on the role of phronesis—”good judgment” or “practical intelligence.” This same term plays a pivotal role in Gadamer’s very influential theory of philosophical interpretation, as expounded in his most important work, Truth and Method. For Gadamer, politics is a specification of culture; in other words, “prudence” is central, not merely to textual analysis, but to the interpretation of life. A philosophical consideration of the good is also, at least implicitly, a contribution to political good sense.

In his analysis of “the two ingredients of western culture,” Strauss lays primary emphasis upon Plato and the Hebrew Bible. Gadamer, as it were, replaces the Hebrew Bible by Aristotle (which is not to imply that Aristotle is neglected by Strauss). Strauss, despite his great respect for the Hebrew tradition, will strike many readers as a Talmudic version of Latin Averroism, or, to adopt an expression closer to his essays, a Maimonidean whose Aristotelianism is Platonic at the core.

Gadamer emphasizes the fundamental similarities rather than the differences between Plato and Aristotle or their common Socraticism. Similarly, Strauss distinguishes between Plato, who did not claim to have a mission, and Socrates, who did make this claim. In this light, we seem to detect in these two volumes a testimony to the central position of Socrates in the Western tradition.

This leads us to the principal problem raised by both books. Socrates was a man who claimed that he knew only that he did not know. In the same tradition, Strauss reinterprets the so-called Platonic Ideas as fundamental “questions.” It is true that Strauss raises the possibility that Socrates knew the difference between good and evil. But he does so in such a way as to demote badness and goodness from their status among the most important things, as well as to leave us with the distinct impression that Socrates was an atheist in the political sense of the word. This makes Socrates hard to distinguish from Nietzsche.

The same problem arises by implication from Gadamer’s more “technical” essays. According to Gadamer, “the common problem, basic to both Aristotle’s and Plato’s investigations, is how the logos ousias (the statement of being, of what a thing is) is possible.” This statement is for both thinkers one of formal structure, whether of interrelated ideas or of essential predicates. Nevertheless, Gadamer insists upon the fundamentally Socratic or practical core of the Platonic-Aristotelian analysis of the good: upon Plato’s conception of the end of all things as expressed in the “measure” or “beauty” of their formal structures, and Aristotle’s concern with knowledge of “the right thing to do.”

To restate this crucial point, Gadamer insists that “Aristotle . . . holds fast to the Socratic heritage in Plato: the good is the practically good.” He also denies that Plato at any stage in his thought intended his ideas to be entirely separate from the world of things, deeds, and speeches. Gadamer concludes: “What Aristotle rejects as such in Plato’s philosophy is not the structural order of the whole but the derivation of the structural order from the hen (one) and the ontological primacy that Plato gives to mathematics as a consequence.”

This is not the place to enter into the technical details of Gadamer’s analysis or of the original texts. Our question is rather: What is the connection between phronesis or sound judgment and formal structure, whether as articulated by Plato or by Aristotle? No one could doubt that it is crucial for sound judgment to understand the natures of things to a degree that permits valid practical inference. But the kernel of the practical inference is a perception of the good in a sense that does not reduce to formal structure.

One has to say that Gadamer’s analyses do not cast any light on the connection between formal structure and phronesis. Strauss, on the other hand, seems to suppress formal structure entirely, and to leave us with nothing but phronesis. We are then obligated to ask: What is the basis for a sound practical judgment according to Strauss? On the basis of his adherence, explicitly and implicitly, to Socratic ignorance, Strauss seems to point to the following alternative. The good is either the posing of fundamental questions, or it is traditional, i.e., “Socratic,” conservatism. But how can the posing of a question provide the answer to a practical problem? And is not Strauss’s Socrates a scarcely concealed skeptic and atheist? To restate the second of these alternatives, is not Socratic prudence simply the traditional wisdom of men of common sense, and so not at all genuinely philosophical? If so, is this not finally to admit that “historicism,” Strauss’s great nemesis, is the last truth about human things?

This conclusion is suggested by a consideration of the central essay in Strauss’s collection (a pivotal position in his hermeneuties), “Note on the Plan of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil.” For Nietzsche, the philosopher is Plato; so too he clearly prefers the biblical Hebrews to the Christians. To be sure, Nietzsche rejects both Plato and the Hebrews, or at best may be said to incorporate elements from each into his ambiguous prophecy concerning human creativity and the philosophers of the future.

In my opinion, Strauss does not accurately characterize Nietzsche’s intention when he says, in a hasty generalization, that “for Nietzsche, as distinguished from the classics, politics belongs from the outset to a lower plane than either philosophy or religion.” (Conversely, it may also be doubted whether, on Strauss’s own testimony, the “classics” placed politics on the same level as philosophy.) This statement suggests the influence of Heidegger, whose presence broods over the pages of this volume.

In the opening essay, officially devoted to Husserl, Strauss says: “There is no room for political philosophy in Heidegger’s work, and this may well be due to the fact that the room in question is occupied by gods or the gods.” In his own interpretations, Heidegger transformed Nietzsche into a metaphysician. Strauss seems to imply that Nietzsche was a theologian: “The doctrine of the will to power—the whole doctrine oi Beyond Good and Evil—is in a manner a vindication of God.”

Since Strauss says on the same page that the will to power is an interpretation, that is to say, a human creation, the “God” whom Nietzsche vindicates would seem to be Nietzsche himself The political implications are obvious enough. To put my point in another way, Strauss clearly regarded Nietzsche and Heidegger as the most important critics and representatives of late modernity. On the reading presented here by Strauss, the modern epoch is essentially a religious phenomenon. More cautiously, it culminates in a quarrel between religion and philosophy, a quarrel in which religion assimilates poetry, thus returning us to the pre-Socratic “origins” so crucial for both Nietzsche and Heidegger, and in so doing triumphs over its ancient enemy.

The quarrel between the ancients and the moderns, as presented explicitly by Strauss and as implied by Gadamer, seems to have resulted in the defeat of both Plato and the Hebrew Bible. The victors, however, are neither Aristotle nor Christianity, but the pre-Socraties, i.e., all those except for Parmenides, or the advocates of comprehensive change, whose general (as Socrates says in the Theaetetus) is Homer. In slightly more precise terms, the victors are a romanticized and hence “Judeo-Christianized” version of the pre-Socraties. Could this be because the quarrel was from the outset between two different kinds of poetry, i.e., interpretations of the good?

Gadamer’s prudence is unable to establish the connection between itself and formal structure or, as one could put it by using terms he himself accentuates, between beauty and truth. Strauss’s Talmudie or Byzantine cunning, lightly camouflaged by a combination of historical learning and intricate political rhetoric, seems to recommend the adoption of a Burkean version of classical conservatism. Whether the recommendation is sound depends upon an assessment of the political nature of the late modern epoch, not upon a direct perception of the political nature ostensibly common to Socrates and to us.


[Studies in Political Philosophy, by Leo Strauss; Chicago: University of Chicago Press]

[The Idea of the Good in Platonic-Aristotelian Philosophy, by Hans-Georg Gadamer, translated by P. Christopher Smith; New Haven: Yale University Press]