Letters to Jacob Klein
Abstract and Keywords
Strauss’s 1938-39 letters to Jacob Klein contain the most explicit examples of exoteric writing in all of Strauss’s work. Strauss also discusses directly the explosive character of a practice that shows the great thinkers to be systematic dissemblers who misrepresent their true views for rational reasons. His discoveries begin with Maimonides and lead back to the Greek teachers of the later practitioners of exotericism. Strauss’s letters treat the historians Herodotus and Thucydides and then Xenophon who takes on special importance for Strauss. Plato becomes a constant presence in the letters as the master practitioner of the writing art. Xenophon and Plato provide dual access to their teacher Socrates who becomes the uniquely important source of philosophic exotericism. Strauss shows how Hesiod practices the exoteric art and he suspects the same of Homer. Theological-political themes are of special importance, as is the issue of the rational status of morality.
Strauss’s studies in the history of philosophy were already well advanced in December 1937 when he traveled to the United States to find a teaching position. He had completed his Ph.D. seventeen years earlier with a dissertation on Friedrich Jacobi. He had written a book on Spinoza in 1925–28 that contained a history of atheism in Western philosophy. He had been an editor of the works of Moses Mendelssohn, which required close acquaintance with the debates of the German Enlightenment involving Jacobi, Lessing, Kant, Leibniz, and others. In the 1930s he made himself a specialist in Jewish and Islamic medieval philosophy, publishing a book in 1935 on Maimonides and his Islamic predecessors. And he made himself an authority on Hobbes, on whom he wrote two books, one of which he had translated into English and published in 1936. In all three published books, classical philosophy played an important role, with Plato serving as a standard in the Maimonides and Hobbes books. In this work on the history of philosophy Strauss had often encountered the fact and vocabulary of exoteric writing, and after writing Philosophy and Law he had learned still more about it, especially in its appearance in Maimonides and the Islamic philosophers.1 But January 1938 marks a turning point in the life of an already established scholar in his thirty-ninth year, for only then did Strauss recover exotericism in its full radicality—and report it with complete candor in the outspoken, (p.8) unvarnished detail of private letters spread across almost two years to his best friend who also shared his intellectual interests, Jacob Klein.2
Strauss’s letters to Klein on the recovery of exotericism deserve to become famous. They surge with the exhilaration, yes, the hilarity of serial revelations spread across twenty-two months of precarious living. They contain, in Heinrich Meier’s metaphor, “a whole series of philosophic supernovas”3 that can now serve Strauss’s reader as orienting points for renewed study of his writings and of the figures in the history of philosophy they mention. More than anything else Strauss wrote, these letters, taken collectively, provide indisputable evidence of his mastery as a reader and of his own practice of exoteric writing: the letters show what he learned, the later writings show how he chose to present it.
Strauss and Klein had been friends since meeting at the University of Marburg in 1920 when both turned twenty-one, and they continued their friendship in Berlin after Strauss was hired as a researcher at the Akademie der Wissenschaft des Judentums in 1925. After Strauss left Germany in 1932 they maintained an extensive correspondence. Strauss’s letters on exotericism begin with his first letter from New York, on January 20, 1938. He had traveled alone from Cambridge, England, in late 1937 to scout firsthand the opportunities in the United States for an almost-forty-year-old German Jewish scholar who had published many books and articles but never held a teaching position at a university. Amid the rigors of travel and failure to find encouraging leads for a full-time position for himself and also for Klein, Strauss reports that “Maimonides is getting more and more exciting.” Maimonides had been a subject of Strauss’s study at least since his focus on Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise, beginning in 1922, had taken him back to Maimonides; but a different Maimonides now comes to light for him. In his first book Strauss called Maimonides “a believing Jew” (SCR, 185), but now he can say, “He was a truly free mind…The crucial question for him was not world creation or world eternity (for he was persuaded of world eternity); instead, it was whether the ideal lawgiver must be a prophet.” The crucial question had become political because the ontological issue of the eternity of the world had been settled, and the necessity of the ideal legislator’s being a prophet “he—denied, as Farabi had before him (p.9) and Averroes did in his own time.” Strauss then adds something almost poignant, given the difficulties his own eventual art of writing would hand his readers: “It’s very difficult to prove that because he discusses the question in an exegetical form.”
Strauss’s next letter (February 7), a brief report on his attempts to secure Klein (and himself) a position at the New School for Social Research, ends, “Now I have to go to Maimonides.” He reports the results a little over a week later (February 16): “With Maimonides I’ve gone a good bit further—I mean in understanding the Guide—but I haven’t written a line.” A joking little preface to his report betrays his giddy mood: he refers to a book that bibliographers had sought in vain, On the Three Imposters, a rumored book about the three founding imposters, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed. It had been assigned to various authors but Strauss says it could not be found “simply because it was sought even though it was in everyone’s hands: it’s the Guide (or as the case may be, the works of Averroes and Farabi).” Then comes his discovery: “You can’t imagine with what infinite refinement and irony Maimonides handles ‘religion’…One misunderstands Maimonides simply because one does not reckon with the possibility that he was an ‘Averroist’: consider it and all the difficulties in principle just dissolve.” Before stating his actual discovery Strauss looks to its consequences: “If in a few years I explode this bomb (in case I live so long), a great battle will be kindled.” Strauss suggests the destructiveness of the bomb by relating what an acquaintance4 said to him: “for Judaism Maimonides is more important than the Bible.” Therefore: “to pull Maimonides out of Judaism is to pull out its foundation.” Strauss comments coolly: “This will yield the interesting result that a simply historical determination—the determination that Maimonides in his beliefs was absolutely no Jew—is of considerable present-day significance: the incompatibility in principle of philosophy and Judaism (‘clearly’ expressed in the second verse of Genesis) would be demonstrated ad oculos.” The thinker more important to Judaism than the Bible was absolutely no Jew; he was a philosopher, and philosophy and Judaism are incompatible—that’s the bomb. How will Strauss explode it? “For now,” he says, he’s a long way away “from such important matters”; what concerns him meanwhile is “collecting a lexicon of secret words”—the patient piecework that will always be foundational to his actually writing a line on such matters. But “secret words” is misleading: “An essential point in Maim.’s technique is of course that he says everything completely (p.10) openly, if in the places where an idiot doesn’t look.” Maimonides’s exotericism is not a matter of secret depths or curtained enclosures: everything essential is hidden in plain sight. What is needed is the proper perspective for viewing the surface of the text in its planned complexity. From the beginning, then, Strauss knew that exotericism was not a matter of arcane, occult mysteries. He ends his account of his initial entry into Maimonides’s exotericism: “The reading is an unbelievable pleasure that compensates me for so much.” He signs off but he can’t let go, adding a note that confirms how his discovery burdens him: “There’s an aphorism in N.: when I hold the truth in my fist, dare I open my fist?”5 Alone in New York, missing his wife,6 burdened by fears for his future and that of his family and dearest friends, Strauss begins making the discoveries that transform his view of philosophy and assign him his lifework. He knows he holds a bomb in his fist, and he thinks of Nietzsche, who said, “I am dynamite.”7
Back in England five months later, Strauss refers on July 4 to “the mystical treatise known to you”; then, on July 23, preparing his permanent move to the United States, he reports being “deeply immersed in my work, that is, in the completion of that mystical treatise which you partly already know. Yesterday I finally finished it.” The mystical treatise is the essay on Maimonides that he published in 1941 and republished in 1952 as the third or central chapter of Persecution and the Art of Writing: “The Literary (p.11) Character of the Guide for the Perplexed.”8 Strauss briefly describes this first writing after discovering Maimonides’s exotericism: “There are six little chapters from which the exacting reader will understand everything and which will give the superficial reader a sheaf of useful information.” He thus holds two audiences in view, those who will understand and those who can profit without understanding—he has already seen to it that his own writing will bear the single most important feature of the writing by Maimonides that he has just learned to understand. He continues: “The view I succeeded in coming to in N.Y. has confirmed itself even more: the Guide is the most amazing book that I at least know. What N. had in mind with his Zarathustra, namely, a parody of the Bible, succeeds in the Guide in far greater measure.” The idea of imposter still pleases him: “The paradox is that the very people who present the three imposters doctrine are themselves exactly what they imagine the founders of religion are: they themselves dupe the populace.” Strauss describes precisely what Maimonides aims at: “The guide of the perplexed, or the instruction of the perplexed, is a repetition of the Torah (= instruction) for the perplexed, i.e., for the philosophers—i.e., an imitation of the Torah with ‘little’ ‘additions’ which only the expert notices and which imply a radical critique of the Torah.” And Strauss confirms his reading of the Guide by finding that Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah has the same character, “no less a satire of genius.”
The rest of this letter betrays Strauss’s mix of feelings about his discoveries in Maimonides and his own “mystical treatise,” speaking first with a modesty that hardly fits what he knows is a historic advance: “I could actually be a bit proud that I’ve solved this riddle.” But personal pride pales at the thought of what he holds in his fist: “But maybe my nerves aren’t strong enough—or I lack ‘scientia’—or both are the case. In short, at times I shudder in the face of what I may cause by my interpretation.” His shudder can’t extinguish his high-spirits: “The upshot will be that I, poor devil, have to spoon up the soup in which this diabolical sorcerer of the twelfth century landed me. But, as the heathens say, fata nolentem trahunt. Esto!” The heathen quoted by the Jew who entered Maimonides’s non-Judaism is Seneca, whose complete thought runs: “the consenting fate leads, the resisting she schleps along with her”—Strauss counts himself a consenter together with the heathen Seneca.
(p.12) In the next letter to refer to exotericism, on October 15, Strauss is back in New York and reduced to what will become a depressing ritual, asking Klein for small loans that he pays back punctually after a few weeks.9 Strauss reports: “I’m starting to work.” And what work it is, for the gains made with Maimonides Strauss now begins to make with Maimonides’s ultimate teacher, Plato.10 His report is laconic: “I’m starting to work: Nomoi!” Plato’s Laws has begun to open itself to him: “Above all, understanding the meaning of ‘ambiguous speech’ polynoia in the work.” He adds in parentheses what will become a frequent lament in his reports on Greek matters: he’s reading the scholarly commentators, but to a reader making discoveries in Greek exotericism, the superficiality of the scholars coupled with their conviction that they already know everything is almost more than he can bear. But he has help in reading Plato:11 “I’m now reading Herodotus, who— I swear it as a Catholic Christian—is also an esoteric writer and one in perfection. In short, it’s happening again.” What happened with Maimonides is happening with Greek authors and will happen repeatedly until Strauss has the whole tradition of Greek exotericism in view. After puckishly describing his and his wife’s life in the United States as a continuation of their English (p.13) life—“except boosted by the invasion of wurst, pickles, and grapefruit juice”—he signs off his brief letter with a fine little joke: “Cordially greeting you, also in the name of his wife, your friend, Leo Strauss.” A superscript affixed to Frau leads to a footnote, three lines of Greek from the first full story in Herodotus, Candaulus’s offer to Gyges to view his wife naked to confirm that she is the most beautiful of women.12 Strauss explains the esoteric meaning of the “clever story that greatly pleased M. [Mirjam, his wife]”: “the wives are the ‘patriarchal laws’ which everyone holds for the most beautiful. Woe to Gyges, who views a ‘wife’ who is not his own. Therefore: esotericism.” Now there’s a letter fit to be sent on Nietzsche’s birthday.
Five days later (October 20), Strauss reports further on Herodotus: “I’m really stunned, and prostrate myself before such artistry (= capability).” Bowled over as he is by Herodotus, his focus lies elsewhere: “My lucky star wants it that his work is really the single model for Plato known to me.” But that singleness may stem from his own ignorance: “(But then maybe all we learned about the tragedians, for example, is completely false).” What Herodotus points Strauss to in Plato is by any measure a supernova: “I can therefore show that what is nearest my heart about Plato is independent of the specifically Platonic philosophy.” Plato is separable from Platonism, and it is that separated Plato who is dear to Strauss. He makes one Herodotus-Plato connection explicit: “Herodotus: a book of logoi (histories, stories) with the antidote to logoi. Nomoi: a book of nomoi with the antidote to Nomoi.” He then adds a parenthetical remark that reveals how he now reads Plato: “(Besides, the Phaedrus passage on Egyptian logoi was certainly not written without an express relation to a very particular paragraph in Herodotus.)” Esoteric Plato is fully aware of esoteric Herodotus and responds in kind. Strauss expresses his great pleasure: “With my customary naiveté and modesty I declare that the riddle of Herodotus is solved!” He can go on: “The unitary ground for (a) history of the Persian wars, (b) short stories, ‘novellas,’ (c) ethnography has been found—wait, more on that orally.” This unfortunate halt can serve as a reminder that we’re lucky Strauss couldn’t afford a telephone, as he says in his letter on December 15. He signs off in English: “I am perfectly happy in spite of the great financial troubles.”
Two weeks later (November 2), there’s more: “I find myself in a state of frenzy that’s consuming me: after Herodotus now Thucydides too!” Strauss’s frenzy involves Plato: Pericles’s funeral speech is “a pure parody— exactly like the Protagoras speech in Protagoras.” Thucydides’s exotericism includes conveying his meaning through silences: “the word sôphrosunê (p.14) does not appear in the funeral speech: that is Thucyd.’s critique of Periclean Athens and of Pericles himself.” Thucydides’s exotericism is systematically present in his mix of speeches and deeds: “His history is no ‘history’ but an attempt to show by deeds those who are unteachable by speeches just where ignorance of sôphrosunê leads.” Strauss is certain about where the “historian” Thucydides stands: “but it’s settled for Thuc. that the speeches are more important than the deeds.” Strauss inserted Plato parenthetically into his sentence—“(a completely Platonic theme – cf. Apology and Crito)”—and he expands the thought: “Spoken Platonically, the deeds are only paidia, and therefore they are…essentially comedies.” He appended a footnote to his comment on Plato: “Pay attention to the titles: no heroes! Only 4 titles indicate the theme: Politeia, Nomoi, Politikos, Sophistes— that already says everything!”13 Strauss shows how he reads Plato esoterically: “Moreover, the Apology ends with the word theos, i.e., with the word with which the Laws begins. I.e. the problem intentionally conjured away in the Apology—the gods in which the city believes—becomes the theme of the Laws. The Laws are Plato’s greatest work of art.” He adds a sentence after signing off, “It’s beginning to dawn on me how misunderstood the ancients are.”
Three weeks later (November 27), Strauss reports that he has started a new essay, “On the study of classical political philosophy.” He intends it to show that “Herodotus, Thucyd., and Xenophon are no historians—of course not—but authors of exoteric, protreptic writings.” Thus does Xenophon enter Strauss’s letters on the misunderstood ancients, and he will soon occupy a favored place, though always in a way that points to Plato’s still greater importance. “Their history books,” he says of all three Greek historians, “are exactly those readings for youths that Plato recommends in the third book of the Republic: prose writings in which what is between the speeches (i.e., the presentation of deeds) is outweighed by the speeches (i.e., the logoi which are inserted into the historical-works).” He offers a parenthetical remark: “(The Platon. dialogues in which the author fully hides himself belong after Plato to a higher plane.)” The whole history of exotericism is starting to come into view with Plato the crowning figure; Plato’s art of philosophic exotericism, his dialogues, surpass all previous Greek efforts at esoteric communication. (p.15) Strauss then reports just what Xenophon aimed at in The Education of Cyrus. Calling it “a wholly great book of sublime irony,” he says that “what Socrates is is shown through his caricature of Cyrus. Only through that medium does Xenophon show the true, hidden Socrates, whereas he shows the manifest Socrates in his Memorabilia.” Distinguishing this way among Xenophon’s writings leads Strauss to one of his greatest insights into the Socratic circle: “His Socrates image is therefore not fundamentally different from that of Plato.” This insight will lead Strauss to his history-making recovery of the true Socrates passed on through both Xenophon and Plato, surely the greatest of all recoveries given Socrates’s singularity as “the vortex and turning point of so-called world history.”14
Five days later (December 2), Strauss can say that “the history of Greek political philosophy still remains most highly exciting.” Beginning from Aristotle, he can see that “the ‘inferiority’ of ethics and politics…was of course shared by Plato, who…wrote only ironically about politics.” Then comes the first notice of what will become the most explosive bomb of all: “Socrates too was no ‘ethicist’: he simply replaced the myths (Herodotus’s) and the history (Herodotus’s and Thucydides’s) with dialogues about the human things.” Strauss does not elaborate his stunning insight into Socrates except to say, “One can prove this from—Xenophon’s Memorabilia”—that is, from the very book that seems most to prove that Socrates was an “ethicist” and nothing but. Strauss wants to know more: “I’m curious about what is hidden in Sophocles who, according to tradition, was a friend of Herodotus—I’m afraid that here too it’s philosophy and not the city and the ancestors.” “I already wrote you that the correct translation of daimonion is: nous [mind].” The Socrates who is not an “ethicist” piously called what guided him a personal “daimonion” while guiding himself by mind alone. Strauss expands on this Socrates: “science is the true Mantik [art of divination], the true knowledge of the teleutê [end] because [it is] of the archê [principle or cause or beginning].”
Ten days later (December 12), Strauss reports that he’s working on the problem of the dialogue “as the ideal form for the disguised presentation of the truth.”15 Strauss offers capsule interpretations of four of Plato’s dialogues to support his claim, the Symposium, the Apology, Phaedo, and the Laws. His comments on the Laws show how he now views the Platonic (p.16) corpus as a whole. “The Laws rests on the fiction that Socrates escaped from the prison! The opening for the Laws (the opening through which Socrates slipped off to Crete) is clearly shown in the Crito!” A short sentence draws the necessary conclusion, and it is that sentence that most demands an exclamation mark: “There is therefore no ‘earlier and later’ in Plato’s authorship.” Strauss thus suspends the greatest preoccupation of modern Plato scholars, arranging the dialogue chronologically into early, middle, late in accord with some scheme of Plato’s “development.” Strauss now sees that in the so-called early Crito, the laws present Socrates with the options for his escape, but the disjunction that persuaded Crito that Socrates had to stay was not exhaustive; it left unspoken a possible escape to a law-abiding place far away, an escape to Crete, say, as portrayed in the so-called late Laws. An “early” dialogue sets the scene for a “late” dialogue—Strauss’s refusal of scholarly orthodoxy, the now pervasive prejudice, allows him to view the Platonic corpus as a unified whole in which one dialogue can silently illuminate another.
A second indispensable item about Socrates appears as an aside in this letter: “Socrates teaches peri phuseôs [on or about nature],” Strauss says parenthetically, and he adds a footnote: “Aristophanes was completely right—he just didn’t know what the difference was between Anaxagoras and Socrates.” Here is a Socrates completely lost to modern scholarship, which understands the defensive rhetoric of the dialogues too literally: the dialogues, Strauss sees, intimate that Socrates continued, if with the greatest discretion, to study the things aloft and the things under the earth, the totality of the beings. This Socrates, the philosopher of nature, of cosmology, is the Socrates discreetly present in Strauss’s mature commentaries on Plato and Xenophon.
More than two months pass before Strauss again mentions his work in his letters, but the letter in which he does (February 16, 1939) is the most explosive of them all. He announces first an intention to write the essay on Xenophon that appeared nine months later as “The Spirit of Sparta or the Taste of Xenophon”:16 “I plan to prove in it that his apparent praise of Sparta is in truth a satire on Sparta and on Athenian Laconism.” “Xenophon is my special Liebling,” he says, “because he had the courage to clothe himself as an idiot and go through the millennia that way—he’s the greatest con man I know.” The clothing, the con that so endears Xenophon to Strauss, leads him to conclude that what Xenophon does, his teacher did: (p.17) “I believe that he does in his writings exactly what Socrates did in his life.” Socrates was a great con man who taught his best students to be con men. About what? Strauss here elaborates the most radical, one could even say shocking, aspect of his recovery of exotericism, and he revels in it: “In any case with [Xenophon] too morality is purely exoteric, and just about every second word has a double meaning.” Socrates and his circle stand beyond good and evil. Strauss gives two examples of words with double meanings: kalokagathia, the word for “gentlemanship” that joins “beautiful” (or “noble”) to “good” in order to name the model of aspiration for young Greek males; and sôphrosunê, the word that gathers the total of Greek virtue into thought-guided sound-mindedness or wise self-control. Together, these two words name the pride of the Greek gentleman, that pillar of civic rectitude and public-spirited generosity who made the polis both possible and great—the gentleman for whom Xenophon is customarily taken to be the tedious spokesman, the Colonel Blimp, the idiot for whom he wanted to be mistaken. Strauss supplies the esoteric meaning of the two words: “Kalokagathia was, in the Socratic circle, a swear word, something like ‘philistine’ or ‘bourgeois’ in the nineteenth century. And sôphrosunê is essentially self-control in the expression of opinions.” Socrates’s sôphrosunê is his exotericism, his self-control in hiding what he meant in words of praise for what he judged socially necessary. Morality was merely a means for an immoralist who understood society’s need to believe in morality.
Strauss adds a final clause: “—in short, there’s a whole system of secret words here exactly as in Maimonides, therefore a found feast [Fressen] for me.” Strauss’s recovery one year earlier of the exotericism of Maimonides put him in a position to recover—feast on—the exotericism of Maimonides’s great Greek teachers: what Maimonides did, Socrates had done. The “secret” words are no hocus pocus; they’re the most honored words of everyday use supplied by artful speakers like Socrates or Xenophon or Maimonides with a meaning very different from their everyday sense, turning them ironic. There’s more than an artful practice here. If Maimonides carried into his setting of the one true revealed religion the ironic or exoteric practices that Socrates generated in the different context of Athens, then the differences between Athens and Jerusalem with respect to religion are not essential differences. Socrates/Xenophon/Plato stood beyond morality and gained insight not only into morality but into religion’s support of morality. To move from the exotericism of Maimonides back to the exotericism of the Socratic circle is to see that they gained insight into the nature of the revealed religions or the monotheisms without direct experience of them. The Maimonides bomb thus leads to another, still more deadly bomb about (p.18) Socratic philosophy as a whole, the moral teaching that came to be foundational for a whole civilization.
Xenophon may be Strauss’s Liebling, but Plato is the massive presence offering him the greatest challenge and greatest reward. In this same letter he reports to Klein that the first book of the Laws contains a hidden reference to the closing scene of Phaedo, in which Phaedo narrates that Socrates “covered himself” as the effect of the poison moved up his body. Treating Plato’s corpus as a unified whole again offers insight, because to explain this event in Phaedo Strauss refers to Laws 1.648d5–e5 together with 647e. The whole passage that Strauss refers to is relevant, but the decisive words are “fear of the defeat inflicted on all men by the wine cup”17 —“the fear drink,” Strauss says, “is of course death!” Therefore, Strauss can conclude that “even Socrates fails in the face of death, all humans suffer defeat in the face of death.” Turning to the Laws to understand Socrates’s desire in Phaedo to cover his face as death approaches allows Strauss to see Plato’s artfulness in making Phaedo a narrated dialogue and to voice a truly capital gain in studying Plato’s dialogues: “it characterizes Phaedo as narrator that he didn’t notice this and for that reason also accepted the proofs of immortality.” Plato dared to assign the memory of Socrates’s last day to a devotee incapable of fully understanding what he devoutly memorized and loved to recite—Phaedo is Plato’s record of Socrates’s last day transmitted through a literalist disciple. And that narrator is the fit narrator because of what he did not notice. Almost every hearer and reader of his narration will not notice; he transmits Socrates’s speeches and deeds to a posterity that will resemble him in the essential respect. But there will be rare auditors and readers capable of measuring the validity of the proofs of immortality and capable of doing what Strauss is doing, reassembling what Plato so artfully scattered between Phaedo and the Laws. Strauss can conclude with every confidence that Socrates’s proofs of immortality were exoteric: sufficient to persuade Phaedo and almost all readers but logically deficient. Socrates’s fear of death required that he cover his face in the presence of those he had encouraged, made courageous, by his arguments for immortality. Strauss ends his report on the Laws: “The Laws are now, I believe, clear to me (the theology of the 10th book is part of penal law!).” That exclamation mark is well deserved: theology is part of politics, the part that concerns itself with the laws administering punishment; punitive gods guarantee obedience to mere laws. Belief in immortality with different fates for good and wicked, (p.19) secured by the mortal Socrates on his dying day, is an especially effective part of penal law.
If the Laws is now clear to him, “the Republic is beginning to become clear to me.” This growing clarity yields results: “My suspicion from last year that its actual theme is the relation between the bios polit. and the bios philos. and that it is dedicated to a radical critique and rejection of the political life has been fully confirmed.” That allows Strauss to add a third indispensable word with a double meaning for Socrates’s circle, dikaiosunê, justice; again he gives its esoteric meaning:
And [my suspicion] has gained precision in this, that it is dedicated to a critique of dikaiosunê: the Republic is an ironic justification precisely of the adikia [unjust], for philosophy is adikia—that comes out beautifully in the Thrasymachus discussion—dikaiosunê loses the trial, it wins it only through the myth at the end, that is, through a kalon pseudos [beautiful lie], that is, through a deed that is strictly speaking adikon.
The whole of the Republic from book 1 through the final myth lies open to Strauss: it is an exoteric defense of justice with the aim of sheltering philosophy, philosophy by its very nature being unjust, the judge and critic of justice that, with Socrates, learns to speak well of practical life and the justice it requires.18
Strauss isn’t finished: in beginning to come clear to him, the Republic offers another primary insight with a fourth primary word, thumos, the spirit or heart that is the key word for the Republic’s new teaching on the soul: “And thumos too is purely ironic! The distinction between epithumia [desire] and thumos is permissible only exoterically, and with that ‘Glaucon’s’ kallipolis breaks apart.” It’s Glaucon’s beautiful city, not Socrates’s; Socrates built it in speech for Glaucon and his thumotic like, built it to control their thumos through a new belief about the nature of their thumotic, Homer-formed souls. Here are whole slabs of Strauss’s mature interpretation of the Republic published in less explicit language in The City and Man and the Plato chapter of the History of Political Philosophy. After these stunning sentences, Strauss collects himself: “But now back to so-called life.”
(p.20) Two weeks later (February 28), under the stress of his wife’s sickness, money woes, the fate of his father in 1939 Germany, and the need to finish his Xenophon essay in two weeks, Strauss can report that “there’s no question anymore that Xenophon’s Socrates is identical to the Platonic—only Xenophon shows Socrates still more disguised, still more as he visibly was than Plato. And besides, he’s far more aristocratic (= more obscene) than Plato.” His discoveries allow him to add, “The philologists are indescribable idiots!”
Six months later Strauss and his wife were in Wiccopee near Fishkill, New York, where they were spending their vacation. On July 25, Strauss reported to Klein that his temporary employment at the New School had ended and that his itinerary for the coming academic year, 1939/40, would take him to five colleges, six weeks each at Hamilton, Middlebury, and Union, three weeks at Wesleyan University, and the rest of the year at Amherst. Then he reports on his work. He has withdrawn his Xenophon essay to rewrite it, and he is Socratically defiant about it: “As far as Xenophon is concerned, I have not, by Hera, exaggerated: he’s a very great man, not inferior to Thucydides and even Herodotus. The so-called deficiencies of his histories are in the end the result of his sovereign contempt for the laughable erga [deeds] of the kaloikagathoi.” And he adds about Xenophon’s exoteric writing: “Furthermore, he says all of that when one takes the trouble to open one’s eyes, or as he calls it, when one is not satisfied with hearing but is also willing to see.” Strauss adds to a judgment he has already expressed, “The identity of the Xenophonian and Platonic Socrates is beyond doubt, it’s the same Socrates-Odysseus in both, the teaching too.” He elaborates his claim by stating that “the problem of the Memorabilia is identical to that of the Republic: the problematic relation between justice and truth, or between the practical and theoretical life.” Moreover,
The technique of Plato and Xenophon is largely identical: neither writes in his own name; the author of the Memor. likewise of the Anabasis is not Xenophon but an anonymous ego; in the Memor. Xenophon is the single associate whom Socrates labels “Wretch.” As for ne kuna [by the dog], Xenophon treats it this way: he lets Socrates tell a fable in which a dog swears by Zeus! This example shows most clearly what a dog Xenophon is. In short, he’s completely wonderful and from now on my undisputed Liebling.
“We’ve got three dogs here,” Strauss says in his next sentence to open his next paragraph.
(p.21) Two week later (August 7), Strauss reports that he has begun to make notes on the Memorabilia, and he states “the greatest problem” he’s finding with it: “in what sense the principle that Socrates concerned himself only with the ethical things—in what sense this thoroughly false principle is nevertheless also correct.” Strauss’s reading of exoteric texts thus requires that the false be in some sense true, true from a perspective different from that of the typical reader. Most readers will be pleased to read that Socrates concerned himself only with the ethical; but some few will want to learn in what way this esoterically false statement can be true. Strauss uses Greek words to say that the general answer is clear: “anthropos— logos—on” (human—speech—being). And adds: “Of special significance is the problem of philia, insofar as the understanding of what philia is destroys the theology of mythos: the higher can not be ‘friend’ to the lower; ergo: denial of providence. This is, I believe, the central thought of the Memor.” The truth in the false claim that Socrates concerned himself only with the ethical resides in the ontological/theological implications one can draw from that claim. Strauss can therefore end saying, “I believe I’ve essentially understood Xenophon’s Socratic writings, also Anabasis, Hellenica, Cyropädie, and some of the shorter writings.”
Strauss is spending his vacation moving ever more deeply into Xenophon. On August 18, he reports that despite the heat that keeps him from his “Xenophonstatistik,” his counting words like dialegesthai and philoi, “I have in the meantime understood the Memor. completely, if to completely understand with such books is identical with understanding the plan. The agreements with Plato are simply astounding, at times so astounding that one asks oneself astounded: are Xenophon and Plato at all different people?” He draws a conclusion about Socrates: “The relatedness is doubtless connected with the fact that a considerable part of the teaching as also of the tricks goes back to Socrates himself.” This teacher-trickster Socrates is not the moralist of the “Socratic dialogues or the Memorabilia” but a Socrates immeasurably more radical, strategic, and great than all but the fewest have imagined. Strauss does not exclude the possibility of mutual influence between Xenophon and Plato within the Socratic circle, and “the most fabulous” aspect of that “is that Xenophon (in Symposium) comments on Plato! If you can call something like that ‘comment.’” Strauss finds Plato and Xenophon caricatured in Xenophon’s Symposium as the Syracusan and Philippos. When Philippos defends Socrates against the accusations of the Syracusan, Socrates says to Philippos (Xenophon) about the Syracusan (Plato): “You would abuse him if you would claim to be better than him in any respect.” Strauss: (p.22) “If this is not the most sublime praise ever written, I don’t know what would be.”19
Strauss opens his next letter (from Hamilton College, October 10) with a “poetic” phrase anticipating what’s coming in the letter, for it reports that he has traced Greek exotericism back to the founding poets of Greece, the last great advance in the recovery of exotericism that these letters record.20 Strauss enters Hesiod’s Theogeny through Plato, through the cosmology of Timaeus.21 The poem is “of course no theogeny as the title already proves (for what good author shows the theme in his title instead of letting his reader find it).” Strauss reports the theme in three laconic judgments:
instead, it is an answer to the question of what the first, the unborn things are; further, an illumination of the Olympian through this question; and finally, an enlightenment of what this question and answer, that is, what wisdom, means. The first things are not the gods but such things as earth, sky, stars, ocean which at one place are expressly distinguished from the gods simply.
Strauss has again found “the key” to a fundamental Greek book by reading its meaning in its exoteric details: “The key to the book are—the Muses.” The “twofold genealogy” of the Muses shows the book’s exoteric and esoteric character: “(1) exoterically [the Muses] stem from Zeus and Mnemosune; (2) esoterically they are the progeny of Ocean. How this hangs together you will guess immediately on the basis of the opening of the Odyssey, as from the remarks in the Theaetetus and the Metaph. about the origin of Thales’s principle.” With this list Strauss makes evident how his discoveries in exotericism led him to an overarching insight into the unity of Greek thought: the esoteric meaning of Hesiod’s Muses springing from the ocean can be read in Homer and in the comments of Plato and Aristotle on Thales’s principle that water is the element from which everything springs—each of the great Greeks knew what the others were saying and each responded in kind. Strauss then offers a summary judgment: “That the (p.23) whole is a mix of truth and lie is clearly said in the revelation to Hesiod.” Strauss cites only the line numbers of the Muses’ identification of themselves to Hesiod (ll. 26–28): first they berate him; then they say they know how to tell many lies like the truth and know how, when they wish, to tell the truth.22
Strauss turns to Hesiod’s other main poem:
What Hesiod himself really thought of the first things, I don’t know: Plato says in the Cratylus when he comes to speak about this question: “I think.” But what I know with certainty is what Works and Days has to do with. You once raised the question of what the title means. The answer: merely replace each element with its provable opposite from the poem itself: words and nights, that is, disguised speech. The theme is: an agon between nightingale and falcon, that is, singer and king, with an exoteric morality for hoi polloi (the last point, the exoteric character of the praise of work lies almost on the surface). And Hesiod is expressly the singer.
As always, Plato is present: “what Plato in the Theaetetus says about the poets of the past age, namely, that they disguised philosophy in poetry, can, as far as Hesiod is concerned (who also appears in the Republic somewhere in the middle of a story),23 be actually proven.” Strauss looks beyond Hesiod: “I’m convinced it’s not different in Homer. Just read the shield of Achilles! And the self-identification with Odysseus in the Odyssey and the remarkable fact that Thersites speaks the truth.” Finally, Strauss turns to Parmenides, remarking on just how he fits into the esoteric whole Strauss is discovering Greek wisdom to be: “the relationship to Hesiod backward and to Plato forward jumps to the eye.” Noting the role of the female in Parmenides and the fragment that says that “women are ‘warmer’ (that is, more light-like) than men,” Strauss calls it “a milestone in the criticism of (p.24) the andreia [manly spirit].”24 Plato again: “The sentence is as ironic as what is said in the Rep[ublic] about the equality of women—the background is in both cases the same. And yet something one can see only when one believes not in ‘the Greeks’ but in philosophy.” Maleness and femaleness combined with a critique of manliness: here is a theme of Strauss’s maturity that received its most impressive statement at the center of his late commentary Xenophon’s Socratic Discourse, as will be shown in chapters 3 and 4 below on Gynaikologia and Andrologia.
Strauss ends his report with a parenthetical remark: “(Don’t laugh at your little friend who has in the meantime stepped into Schwabenalter.)”— into age forty (three weeks earlier on September 20), when according to an old Schwabian ritual one entered the age of wisdom. Strauss is joking but he’s not wrong: at age forty he has stepped into the most breathtaking wisdom, the wisdom gained by Homer and Hesiod and passed on in an esoteric way to the future generations of Greek wise men they schooled. Recovered and repeated in a different way by Herodotus and Thucydides, it was recovered and repeated in a still different way by Socrates and the two greatest writers of the Socratic circle. Secured in the writings of Xenophon and Plato, Greek wisdom was passed on to non-Greek peoples.25
Not evident in this letter but present in the ones that follow is Strauss’s gathering despondency at his situation. Two weeks after his letter on Hesiod, he reports, again from Hamilton College (October 25), that his “work is advancing very very slowly.” Still, “I have sufficient indications from Xenophon of the Pythagorean background of the Socratic philosophy. He is truly great.” He’s also been working on Plato: “Moreover, I’ve now understood the Symposium in principle: it’s the ‘authentic’ enlightenment about the profaning of the mysteries by Alcibiades; not Alcibiades but Socrates blabbed the secret of the mysteries. It’s a case of the famous fact that the actual ‘accuser’ of Socrates is Plato.26 Decisive is the replacement of Ge in the (p.25) Pluto myth by Penia: that’s the blasphemy.”27 Another letter (November 7) ends with an uncharacteristic, deeply despondent statement: “I’m doing poorly—nothing but cares (my father, Mirjam’s health, no job, no money), no possibility to advance my work—write soon.”
Three weeks later his mood has lightened and he writes a long letter from Union College of further discoveries (November 28). His article “The Spirit of Sparta and the Taste of Xenophon” has appeared: “you can easily imagine the suspense with which I await your stance toward the daring piece”—daring, yet as Strauss adds, “I present only a part of the argument.” He also expresses concern about the reaction of the broader learned audience, knowing that his “distance from the ruling opinion grows greater from week to week.” Week to week is literally true. Three weeks after reporting on Hesiod, he reports on Plato’s Letters:
I’m convinced that all the Platonic letters (also the first) are genuine: they’re the Platonic counterpart to Xenophon’s Anabasis: they’re meant to show that the author was not corrupted by Socrates: while the author constantly disguises himself in the dialogues, it’s the goal of the Letters as of the Anabasis to show that the one disguised is absolutely harmless, absolutely normal.
Plato’s letters, Strauss holds, were intended as a coherent whole, thirteen in number, with the seventh or central letter dealing with the central matter. “How I can make this believable to anyone but you—that I certainly don’t know.”
Strauss ends: “Johnson formally struck me from the list of faculty members of the New School. So I again stand right there where I stood in January of 1938. Do you know of any opportunities?”28 With that uncanny mention of January 1938—the date of his arrival in New York seeking a position but also the date of the first letter reporting his discoveries in exotericism—this letter, the last letter reporting on those discoveries, comes to an end; his last letter refers back to the date of his first letter and reports his conviction that Plato’s letters are a completed whole. This unnerving coincidence can help highlight the chief point conveyed in these letters on exotericism: the great (p.26) authors control coincidence in their writings in order to convey what they know to be true clothed in what they know to be necessary. Such exotericism was a dominant feature of the wisdom of the Greeks that allowed it to be passed on far beyond its Greek homeland, and Strauss had, in the past two years, made himself the latest grateful recipient of the Greek originals. His remark that he stands now where he stood in January 1938 puts an accidental closing exclamation mark on his letters reporting his recovery of exotericism. Strauss stands where he stood almost two years before in all respects but the essential respect: in the intervening months he recovered the esoteric riches of Western philosophy and poetry in its Greek origins.29
How Strauss Chose to Open his Fist
Strauss’s letters to Klein are a permanent treasure. Their explicit statements oftheexplosivesecretsofexotericism—theirrevelryinthosesecrets—canbe found nowhere else in his published or unpublished writings. Yet as rich as these letters are in tracing Strauss’s recovery of exotericism, their limitations must be recognized. The gains reported in the letters have a long prehistory that can at least partially be traced in Strauss’s published and unpublished writings. But more important than that longer trajectory of discovery is the fact that the letters themselves do not even mention the greatest theoretical gain implied in the recovery of exotericism. In the face of the most powerful prejudice of the present age, the belief that philosophy itself is bound to its time and place in what it thinks—that philosophy in its classical sense is impossible—Strauss’s recovery of the philosophers’ exotericism helps prove philosophy possible by showing it to be actual. Insight into the philosophers’ exotericism begins to make evident that the great philosophers, aspiring to transcend their time and place in thought, gained perspectives that can be seen to be shared by other such thinkers and that can plausibly claim to be verifiably true—always within the limits of knowledge that philosophers also came to know. Having made these gains, philosophers then descended, as it were, reporting their gains exoterically by accommodating them to the (p.27) prevailing prejudices of their time while communicating between the lines to their potential like. For the past two centuries, however, those necessary accommodations have been read all too literally, as if they expressed the philosophers’ settled views. As a result, the history of philosophy has been taken as a millennia-long demonstration of historicism, of the greatest thinkers’ inability to transcend their time in thought. What Strauss’s recovery of exotericism represents is nothing less than the recovery of the possibility of philosophy, a true understanding of the world and humanity.30
Strauss continued writing and publishing in the midst of his discoveries and immediately thereafter, and if all of the resulting essays speak of exotericism, they do so very differently from the way the letters do. The first, “The Literary Character of the Guide for the Perplexed,” the “mystical treatise,” was completed in July 1938 but did not appear until 1941. It contains a section called “A Moral Dilemma” in which Strauss discusses the “pangs of conscience” felt by one who attempts to explain the secret teaching of a writer who entreated “the reader in the most emphatic manner not to explain any part of it to others” (PAW 55, 54). Strauss quieted the pangs by imitating the Guide, which presents itself as an esoteric interpretation of a secret teaching: his interpretation takes “the form of an esoteric interpretation of an esoteric interpretation of an esoteric teaching” (PAW 56). In his next section, “Secrets and Contradictions,” Strauss describes some of the practices Maimonides used to convey the truth to his desired audience, but nothing there directly betrays Strauss’s conclusion that Maimonides “in his beliefs is absolutely no Jew.”
His next essay is the one on his Liebling that he wrote during his discoveries in 1939 and was published in November 1939, just before his letters on exotericism end.31 “The Spirit of Sparta or the Taste of Xenophon” is more outspoken than anything he wrote later on Xenophon, stating for instance that “philosophy is the denial of the gods of the city” (532) and that it “is essentially incompatible with acceptance of the gods of the city” (534). Still, he refrained from saying explicitly that this holds for Maimonides’s God.
(p.28) Then, in December 1939, his correspondence on exotericism just over and recently turned forty, Strauss began an essay he titled “Exoteric Teaching.” Beginning with Lessing, whom Strauss never mentioned in his letters to Klein, it reports Lessing’s discovery of exotericism “when he was about forty” (ET, 57 n. 29). “I return to Lessing,” Strauss says to open its last paragraph, and his sentence is a declarative: I, Leo Strauss, return to Lessing, the Lessing who recovered exotericism in stages and embraced the practice himself. The stages of Lessing’s recovery are set out within the frame of Strauss’s paragraph, whose opening question receives the closing answer: “It was precisely his intransigent classicism…which had led him, first, to notice the exotericism of some ancient philosophers, and later on to understand the exotericism of all the ancient philosophers” (59). The move from noticing to understanding included a pivot point: “If I am not mistaken, he rediscovered the bearing of that distinction [between exoteric and esoteric] by his own exertion after having undergone his conversion, i.e., after having had the experience of what philosophy is and what sacrifices it requires” (57). The experience of philosophy led to the distinction between “the philosophic men and the unphilosophic men, and therewith to the distinction between the two ways of presenting the truth.” Insisting on the continuity of Lessing’s “intransigent rationalism” and noting his remark that “I have thrown away” “certain prejudices” “that I shall have to get back again,” Strauss arrives at the point where “the political problem”—“even the absolutely best civil constitution is necessarily imperfect”—“gave Lessing’s thought a decisive turn away from the philosophy of enlightenment” and “toward an older type of philosophy” (58). Strauss emphasizes that Lessing’s turn away is not a turn “toward romanticism of any sort—toward what is called a deeper, historical view of government and religion.” Yet Lessing “apparently came” near “to certain romantic views on his way from the philosophy of enlightenment to that older type of philosophy.” A “political remark” that Jacobi said Lessing made to him tells how near he came to certain romantic views: “According to Jacobi, Lessing once said that the arguments against Papal despotism are either no arguments at all, or else they are two or three times as valid against the despotism of princes” (58). Strauss asks, “Could Lessing have held the view that ecclesiastical despotism is two or three times better than secular despotism?”32 Strauss does not answer directly (p.29) but continues with Jacobi: “Jacobi elsewhere says in his own name but certainly in the spirit of Lessing, that that despotism which is based ‘exclusively’ on superstition, is less bad than secular despotism” (58–59). Strauss notes how each kind stands to exotericism: “secular despotism could easily be allied with the philosophy of enlightenment, and therewith with the rejection of exotericism strictly speaking,” as the teaching of Hobbes showed. “But ‘despotism based exclusively on superstition,’ i.e. not at all on force, cannot be maintained if the nonsuperstitious minority does not voluntarily refrain from openly exposing and refuting the ‘superstitious’ beliefs.” Such refraining was inimical to Enlightenment practice, and as for papal despotism, it can hardly be said to be based “not at all on force.” And Lessing? Having turned away from the philosophy of enlightenment, he recognized one generation before Robespierre’s secular despotism “the relative truth of what the romantics asserted against…a political solution to the problem of civilization.” But he rejected “that relative truth”—rejected returning to ecclesiastical despotism—“in favor of the way leading to absolute truth, or of philosophy.” “The experience which he had in that moment” enabled Lessing “to understand the meaning of Leibniz’s ‘prudence,’” for Leibniz was the “link in the chain of the tradition of exotericism which is nearest to Lessing.” There were other links, “the prudent Descartes,” even the less prudent Spinoza. “But Lessing did not have to rely on any modern or medieval” links because he was familiar with the “sources” of the exoteric tradition; Strauss can therefore end his paragraph on Lessing’s “intransigent classicism” which led him “to understand the exotericism of all ancient philosophers” (59).
Lessing was the nearest link for Strauss, himself a diligent and thinking man as he characterized Lessing, familiar with the sources of medieval and modern exotericism. Strauss too first noticed and finally understood the exotericism of all the ancient philosophers, and he intended his essay to go on to show that. Its posthumously published version ends with the final sentence of the last paragraph, but Strauss did not end there. Heinrich Meier reports that he ended with a “II,” a heading for a second part that was never written but for which an outline exists:
7.Aristotle’s “exoteric” writings. 8. Cicero. 9. Xenophon. Cyneg. 10. Plato’s Letters. 11. Plato’s Dialogues. Phaedrus, Rep., Timaeus. 12. Plato on (p.30) the poets and Hesiod on the Muses. 13. Herakleitus. 14. The big exceptions: Epicurus and Sophists. Cic. Rep. III.33
Just after ending his letters to Klein on exotericism, then, Strauss projected that his first account of exoteric teaching would begin with a section reporting the experience of Lessing at forty that paralleled his own experience at forty and would then go on to do what Lessing never did, what no previous exponent of classical exotericism ever did, report on what his own “diligent and thinking” study of the classics had shown about “the exotericism of all the ancient philosophers.” Strauss chose not to publish or even to complete his essay on exoteric teaching. It stands as an indication of an early way he considered for opening his fist, with its second, unwritten part doing in miniature what the rest of his career did in large, write a history of exotericism. But he decided against an essay on Lessing and a capsule history of exoteric teaching. Instead, he wrote two pivotal essays, one an introduction to the topic, the other an exegesis and declaration.
The first, “Persecution and the Art of Writing,” appeared in the November 1941 issue of Social Research, the intellectual journal of the New School for Social Research, where Strauss had finally been given a permanent position in the fall of 1940. He republished it in 1952 as the second chapter of the book to which he assigned the same appealing title, a book that helped make him famous and controversial. While setting out in brief form the conditions and motives dictating exoteric writing, the essay is an exercise in moderation when set against the explosives contained in the letters to Klein, when judged by what Strauss could have said had he chosen to.
In the second, “The Law of Reason in the Kuzari,”34 Strauss opens his fist on the explosives in the exegetical way that became his characteristic mode. That the essay has singular importance its topic proves: “‘what a (p.31) philosopher is,’ viz., the relation of philosophy to social or political life” (PAW, 95). His essay is a stunning example of his artful adoption of the artful writing of his forebears. But it is more than that. While showing how he chose to open his fist on the treasures he reported to Klein, he concludes declaring his reason for his choice.
(1) . Strauss’s intellectual development as a young thinker has been usefully charted by Meier, GS, 2: ix–xxxiii; Janssens, Between Athens and Jerusalem; and Zank, Leo Strauss: The Early Writings, who translates many essential pieces and provides well informed and instructive commentary.
(2) . GS, 3: 544–87. The relevant letters are written in German with some Greek, Latin, French, and English. The long prehistory of Strauss’s acquaintance with exotericism, which alone made possible the great discoveries recorded in his letters, is laid out by Janssens (Between Athens and Jerusalem, esp. 123–33); see also n. 7 below.
(3) . Meier, GS, 3: xxxiii.
(4) . Nahum Glatzer, who became a noted scholar of Judaism.
(5) . I have not found any such aphorism in Nietzsche; the thought, however, is thoroughly Nietzschean.
(6) . “Without Mirjam’s calming nearness, jawohl!, I’m only half myself,” January 20, 1938, GS, 3: 545.
(7) . Two essays published after Philosophy and Law record important advances in Strauss’s appreciation of Maimonides’s exotericism: “Quelques remarques sur la science politique de Maimonide et de Fârâbî” (1936, written August–October 1935; see esp. pp. 138–44, 152–56) and “On Abravanel’s Philosophical Tendency” (1937, written April–August 1937); in this last essay to be published before the discoveries in the letters, Strauss refers to Maimonides’s “thoroughgoing rationalism” (203) and describes his distinction between “an exterior, literal meaning, addressed to the vulgar…and a secret meaning of a purely philosophical nature” (199; see also 200). A little fact noted by Heinrich Meier shows just how decisive the advance recorded in the letters is for Strauss’s own view of his past. In the first sentence of his 1963 essay “How to Begin to Study The Guide of the Perplexed,” Strauss refers to “the plan of the Guide as it has become clear to me in the course of about twenty-five years of frequently interrupted but never abandoned study.” Meier reports that on the manuscript Strauss struck the number that would have dated the beginning of his study of the Guide in 1924 (the year he published “Cohens Analyse der Bibel-Wissenschaft Spinozas”) and replaced it with twenty-five, which put the beginning in 1938: fourteen years of work on Maimonides recorded in two books and many articles are erased in order to place the beginning of his understanding of the Guide at the time of the letters (GS, 2: xxiii).
(8) . PAW, 38–94. First published in Essays on Maimonides, ed. Salo W. Baron, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1941), 37–91. In “A Giving of Accounts” over thirty years later, Strauss reports that Klein said, after reading this essay, “We have rediscovered exotericism” (JPCM, 463).
(9) . Klein had arrived in the United States in April 1938, and he had a salary: in September he took a position at St. John’s College, Annapolis, MD, where he would spend the rest of his life.
(10) . Strauss learned Greek and read Plato as a teenager at the classical Gymnasium Philippinum in Marburg. Late in life he reported that “[w]hen I was sixteen and we read the Laches in school, I formed the plan, or the wish, to spend my life reading Plato” (“A Giving of Accounts,” JPCM, 460), a plan or wish he in fact fulfilled. Strauss took seminars on Plato from Paul Natorp in Marburg, and there are reports of him tutoring friends in Plato’s Greek texts such as Gorgias (Udoff, Leo Strauss’s Thought, 27). But Plato does not enter his writings (aside from his 1921 dissertation on Jacobi, see GS, 2: 246, 248, 271, 275) until quite late. The earliest references to Plato in the “Frühe Schriften” collected in the Gesammelte Schriften occur in the December 1930 lecture “Religiöse Lage der Gegenwart,” and the 1931 lecture “Cohen und Maimuni.” Janssens gives an informed account of how Cohen’s judgment that Maimonides “was ‘in deeper harmony with Plato than with Aristotle’” led Strauss to consider the Platonic roots of Maimonides, thus opening up what became the most important element in Strauss’s lifework (Between Athens and Jerusalem, 109). The Platonic themes of particular importance to Strauss in the 1930s are the cave image of the Republic, whose account of the natural impediments to philosophy becomes the basis for his understanding of the additional or historical impediment added by revelation and by modern philosophy, the second cave; Socrates’s question of the right life; and the philosopher king as the foundational teaching for the prophetology of Maimonides and his predecessors. See “Religiöse Lage der Gegenwart,” December 1930, GS, 2: 385–89; “Cohen und Maimuni,” May 1931, ibid., 411–13, 426; “Die philosophische Begründung des Gesetzes,” Summer 1931 (later republished as the final part of PL); and “Die geistige Lage der Gegenwart,” February 1932, GS, 2: 455–56, 461–62. See also the later remarks on Plato in PL, 73–78; “Quelques remarques,” 128–29, 136–37, 152–56; and “On Abravanel,” 196–99.
(11) . Strauss seems not to be reading Alfarabi on Plato; he never mentions him and he presents all his discoveries as his own.
(12) . Herodotus, Histories, 1.8.1–2.
(13) . Twenty-four years later Strauss repeats this in his introductory considerations to “On Plato’s Republic” in CM: “There are only four dialogues whose titles designate the subject matter: the Republic, the Laws, the Sophist, and the Statesman. There is no Platonic Nature or Truth,” and he draws the explicit conclusion: “The subject matter of the dialogues as it is revealed by the titles is preponderantly political” (55–56).
(14) . Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, aph. 15.
(15) . Strauss opened this letter with a grateful acknowledgment of how “very instructive” Klein’s book is on reading the dialogues, and he asked if he had understood Klein correctly on the basic question of the relation of deeds to speeches in the dialogues.
(16) . Strauss chose never to republish this outspoken article after its 1939 appearance in Social Research.
(17) . I translate Strauss’s translation of the passage.
(18) . A forerunner of this discovery can be read in The Political Philosophy of Hobbes (147) (completed in German in 1935), where Strauss outlines Plato’s account of virtue as presenting a hierarchy in which “wisdom stands supreme, but justice stands supreme from an exoteric point of view.” The whole of chapter 8, “The New Political Science,” casts light on Strauss’s view of Plato before the discoveries in 1938–39.
(19) . This reading seems not to have survived in Strauss’s late commentary on the Symposium; see XS, 167–69.
(20) . On this important theme, see Janssens, “The Philosopher’s Ancient Clothes: Leo Strauss on Philosophy and Poetry,” in Armada and Gornisiewicz, Modernity and What Has Been Lost, 53–71.
(21) . He had invited and received a long letter from Klein in which Klein gave a reading of Timaeus (GS, 3: 577–79, August 14, 1939). This is the only letter from Klein preserved in the period here covered.
(22) . For Strauss’s most extended comments on Hesiod’s Works and Days, see LAM, 36 (1959); for his reading of Hesiod generally, see the context of the remarks on Works and Days, LAM, 34–37. See also the important article on Hesiod by Seth Benardete, “The First Crisis of Philosophy,” Argument of the Action, 3–14.
(23) . Does Strauss mean what Socrates calls “the biggest lie about the biggest things” (Republic 377e)? Socrates says about Hesiod’s tale of origins in which gods overthrow gods: “best would be to keep quiet” about them, but if it were necessary to speak of them, then “as few as possible ought to hear them as unspeakable secrets” (378a). Or perhaps “Hesiod’s races” in Socrates’s account of the decline of the city in speech (546e)?
(24) . Two and half months earlier (July 25, 1939) Strauss appended a seemingly unattached remark after his signature: “allusion to the problematic character of the andreia-ideal.”
(25) . This letter of October 10 ends with a reference to Julius Guttmann, whose Maimonides interpretation Strauss attacked in Philosophy and Law in 1935. Strauss’s brother-in-law, the gifted Arabist Paul Kraus, had spoken to Guttmann in Jerusalem. Strauss says, “Guttmann told him that he was writing an article against me, to which K. answered that it was too late since I had in the meanwhile a new Maimonides interpretation.” Had Strauss repeated to Kraus his discoveries in Maimonides’s exotericism that he had reported to Klein a year and a half earlier, or perhaps sent him a copy of his completed but not yet published essay on Maimonides?
(26) . Strauss’s letter of August 18 had also referred to Plato as “the accuser of Socrates,” there in the character of the Syracusan in Xenophon’s Symposium.
(27) . Penia—Poverty—is the mother of Eros in Diotima’s myth of the birth of Eros; in Strauss’s posthumously published commentary on the Symposium, Penia is the source of all the attributes of Eros (OPS, 192–97), implying that Eros has no parents or that Eros “is the nature of nature” (196).
(28) . Alvin Johnson was president of the New School.
(29) . In the correspondence of Strauss so far published, there are no letters from him to other correspondents during the period of these letters to Klein; there is therefore no way of knowing whether he reported his discoveries to anyone but his closest friend, himself a specialist in Greek writers, who, Strauss later said, “convinced me of two things. First, the one thing needed philosophically is in the first place a return to, a recovery of, classical philosophy; second, the way in which Plato is read, especially by professors of philosophy and by men who do philosophy, is wholly inadequate because it does not take into account the dramatic character of the dialogues” (“A Giving of Accounts,” JPCM, 462).
(30) . This philosophic gain is the theme of Meier, “The History of Philosophy and the Intention of the Philosopher” (Leo Strauss and the Theologico-Political Problem, 55–73); see also Melzer, “Esotericism and the Critique of Historicism,” and Melzer, “On the Pedagogical Motive for Esoteric Writing.”
(31) . Strauss gave a version of it as a lecture at St. John’s College with its published title in early May 1939 (letter to Klein, April 13, 1939, GS, 3: 571; see also the letter of May 9). Meier says this writing was “the first publication in which Strauss set before our eyes a concrete example of the art of careful writing…It was at the same time the first essay Strauss wrote on an ancient philosopher” (Denkbewegung, 15 n. 4).
(32) . The empirical aspects of the question of the relative severity of ecclesiastical and secular dogmatisms can be settled by the historical record; Pinker, Better Angels of Our Nature, sets out a massive summary of that record that demonstrates the greater cruelty of ecclesiastical regimes. The theoretical grounds for that cruelty lie in the eschatological purpose of ecclesiastical despotism plus its appeal to absolute authority and the eternal destiny of the soul that raised the stakes infinitely for all the participants.
(33) . Meier, Denkbewegung, 15 n. 4. I modified items 9 and 12 to accord with what Meier now holds to be the correct transcription. Do the numbered entries stand for paragraphs? The first part contains eight paragraphs. In “A Giving of Accounts” Strauss states that “Lessing had said everything I had found out about the distinction between exoteric and esoteric speech and its grounds” (JPCM, 462). Lessing’s influence is evident in the introductions Strauss wrote to the works of Mendelssohn, especially his 1937 “Einleitung zu ‘Morgenstunden’ und ‘An die Freunde Lessings’” (GS, 2: 525–605). The tribute to Lessing at the end of Strauss’s 1948 lecture “Reason and Revelation” is particularly important (Meier, Leo Strauss and the Theologico-Political Problem, 178–79). Meier ends his valuable essay “How Strauss Became Strauss” (“a revised and expanded English version” of his “Vorwort” to GS, 2: ix–xxxiii) with two paragraphs showing the crucial role of Lessing in that becoming.
(34) . Between the end of the letters on exotericism and that essay, Strauss also published eight book reviews in Social Research. See Meier’s “Bibliographie,” Denkbewegung, 54–55.