You may be taken aback by the first part of my title, but do not be. Wool, after all, is that which warms us. In the Ice Age, pulling wool over the eyes was tantamount to survival. That sense lingers in the phrase “pull the wool over your eyes”—or their eyes, as we say, referring to those who need our protection. Not just protection from cold weather but from cold truths.
The second part of my title designates this as a memoir—a Straussian memoir, to be precise. Hence, I begin with a recondite question: “What is what?” Or rather, “What is the what?” That question, which appears to be a mere epigram, captures the profound emptiness of what nowadays masquerades as philosophy. When Threnos first asked this question, in that half-ironic form, he bore witness to why he is one of the most penetrating, albeit most obscure, of the ancients.
Threnos understood the what as a prefigurement of political philosophy. He understood himself to be refuting the most fabled of the skeptics, who denied the peremptoriness of the good and who denigrated political philosophy, which makes the good possible. Threnos comes after Plato and in some ways transcends him.
In Threnos’ passion for the life of the mind there was a sturdy and workmanlike confidence in reason properly understood. By “the what,” Threnos did not mean what we, amid the multitudinous debasements of modern thought, would call what. What we call what is but a vulgar version of what the ancients called the what. The what could not be more different than mere “what” standing alone. The what points to a way of thinking much favored by the best of the ancients. It bestrides mere “what” like a colossus. And it does something else. It speaks the truth—not the mere truth of the matter, but the truth as such, which is not necessarily the truth of the absolute.
To speak of the what, in this exalted sense, is to understand the seriousness of the ancients when they attacked every form of skepticism and nihilism. I would go even further than this: To speak of the what is to speak of humanliness. Oddly, there is no word in the language of the ancients that captures the meaning of this English word, yet in everything they did and said, the best thinkers of the past not only embraced it but embodied it.
Humanliness, note well, is not a species of what some people choose to call anthropocentrism. An intelligent Martian possesses aspects of humanliness. The idea of humanliness, as I said, is not anthropocentric. But having mentioned anthropocentrism, which is central to the social sciences, I must also say something about science, which is inferior to poetry. I mean poetry rightly interpreted: When badly interpreted, poetry is positively harmful—which is another way of saying that one must read with care. In science, there is no reading. There is only doing, experimenting, technologizing. Even cosmologists, those fanciers of imagined worlds, merely spin mathematical formulas in their heads. They don’t read anything in the course of their duties. Above all, they don’t read anything that requires careful interpretation, which is all-important.
Plato and Threnos grasped this profound truth more keenly than any other thinker; and those who advise princes, by which I mean politicians, would do well to understand this—and also to understand Plato as he understood himself. The latter is, of course, no easy task. But given the right teachers, it is not an impossible task.
I must add that part of that task, in a democracy, involves responding in the proper way to Tocqueville. The illustrious Frenchman is the most truly gentlemanly of the true gentlemen. He knew that the source of motivation in the demos cannot be the will of the people, for the people are often blind. Nor can it be the aristocratic elite, for even the best aristocrats typically lack the fullness of esoteric understanding. What suffices for fully understanding the contemporary demos is the properly mediated wisdom of the ancients—Threnos, Socrates, Thucydides, when properly read. Tocqueville may not have said much about this, but he knew the truth of it.
What Tocqueville knew is that in the ancient writers is to be found nous—knowledge, knowingness. The “light of knowledge” is the traditional metaphor here. To be sure, there is that of which one dare not speak, because knowing it is too dangerous; Maimonides on Y—-h is the best example of this in regard to the history of revelation. In the domain of reason, too, nous has certain limitations. “Humankind cannot bear too much reality.” The truth—the whole truth—is not for everyone, and that is why nous must be properly understood. It is also why only great philosophers can shed light on the ultimate things: the good, the true, and the beautiful. (Why not also love? Notice that love is not accompanied by the tell-tale article: We do not refer to the love. Is that not remarkable? It may be that love is not one of the ultimate things, though it is surely one of the important things. It has its own grandeur, but it inhabits a realm utterly different from that of the good, the true, and the beautiful.)
These ultimate things inhabit the realm of telos, which is the keystone of politics and which is often mangled by modern thinkers. It does not simply refer to the end, or purpose, of nature or of human striving. It points more fundamentally to the goal-seeking of the great man, whatever his particular goal happens to be. In greatness of spirit and greatness of achievement is to be found the true nature of telos. The great man is the personification of telos—this was well understood by Threnos and, to a lesser extent, by Plato.
The point is? The point is that a proper comprehension of telos helps us to remember the importance of remembering. To refer to remembering is to refer to the past, which ought not to be ignored. No one knows the past; one can only remember it. But let me remind you that this is a Straussian memoir. The task before me, thus, is much more than remembering the importance of remembrance or the importance of the past, rightly understood. It is something bigger. It is no less than the excavation of human knowledge. That is the real point. And, thus, I must turn to anthropology.
I am an anthropologist of the academy, like most contemporary Straussians. Hence, in a memoir it is fitting for me to remember when, as a student, I heard the lectures of Leo Strauss. Now, much has been written of the Straussian brand of discipleship. But what I will say is that the intellectual intoxication, such as it was, was spiritually sober. The experience lifted the soul as it is best lifted, in an understanding of the greatness of the ancients and the importance of political philosophy. Political philosophy is the greatest thing that can be apprehended by the soul here and now, in this temporal realm. I do not speak of the transcendent, which is merely the domain of religion.
Before us fortunate students was the very embodiment of the mastery and mystery of the permanent things. We were enthralled, but more than that we were illuminated, as few of our peers elsewhere could ever be. Some among us did not quite understand the teachings, and of course none of us understood them as fully as did our great teacher. Those who understood the teachings adequately were given an exceptional gift, the gift of understanding history’s greatest thinkers as they understood themselves. They understood themselves esoterically, wherein the wool is pulled over the eyes—but one must not speak too plainly.
I speak boldly of a “Straussian” memoir. What can this be? A memoir is a display of one’s life and purported experience. But the followers of the true teaching are not interested in experience, but in wisdom. So the memoir I am presenting to you must concern itself with the wisdom of the discerning mind and the prepared heart. It is a memoir not only of a life but, more importantly, of the timeless things. These things constitute the memoir that is called “Straussian.” Yet it must be borne in mind that this is merely a crude label. A better label would be: lovers of the ancient teaching, properly understood.
Let me share with you a little story. Not so long ago, one of my most brilliant students asked me: How do I achieve a unique greatness, and how can I know when it is unique? That deep and impressive question was enough to provoke a two-hours-long response from me; regrettably it was not recorded. But my reply to my student may be summed up very specifically: You will achieve an impressive greatness by writing, for the edification of the demos, a Straussian biography of Paul Wolfowitz while remembering, in the proper way, that a sucker is born every minute.
This advice was well received, I’m happy to report, and I eagerly left for Allan Bloom’s latest soirée. My further meditations on the nature of the what would have to wait.