Straussians, Neoplatonists, and the Socratic Legacy

I admire both Straussians and Neoplatonists (or at least, the more intelligent representatives of each group). However, I’ve found it exceedingly rare to find any friendliness between the two sides, let alone respect. This is strange to me.

I see Straussians and Neoplatonists as doing similar, parallel interpretive work, on different aspects of Plato’s thought. I’m not an expert on either school, but I find it wonderfully refreshing and inspiring to read around within the works of both and to reflect on them. Many of the things I love about Plato and Socrates are extended, elaborated, in these two very different intellectual traditions.

It will seem strange to hear me say that the two are in any way parallel. It would be more typical to say that they are simply unrelated, or perhaps even that they are completely opposed.

Still, I think what I said is true. The way I’ve always spoken of it is to say that Neoplatonism has a wonderful way of systematically working out the implications and consequences of Plato’s metaphysical thinking, while Straussians are able to delve deep into Plato’s thought from the standpoint of political considerations. For what it’s worth, I’d go further than this and say that the Neoplatonists seem to me to have a claim to having solved some of the most challenging metaphysical puzzles, and Straussians to having made some most profound contributions to understanding the relationship of the philosopher and the city.

In my reading, I don’t find the Straussians thinking much about metaphysics, preferring either to let the rest of the world of philosophy do that less interesting sort of work, or else, in some cases, to say that there is probably a secret metaphysical teaching according to which everything is flux and change and reducible to natural science, but if there is a defence of this secret teaching which is able to enter into the metaphysical debates of philosophical history, it must be even more secret because I have never yet seen it.

And likewise the few Neoplatonists out there today generally seem to take Plato’s political teaching largely at face value. Perhaps the original school of thought that we now call Neoplatonism did not exactly do so, but today I think that is more the norm.

And yet there’s no reason why each could not learn and benefit from an admiration of the other side’s labours, at least privately even if professionally there is less opportunity for cooperation. But even this doesn’t seem to happen very often.

One thing I love about both the Neoplatonists and the Straussians is the way they work so hard to find truth and beauty where others would lazily never be able to progress beyond attitudes of contempt or puzzlement or indifference, in approaching the texts of Plato.

In large part, that is what I find most winsome about both. That is where their special virtue resides.

If they could only turn that talent which they have each honed so well toward each other, there should be no difficulty. These two sides who have practiced giving Plato the benefit of the doubt can surely seek the truth where it may be found among others of Plato’s contemporary admirers.

To my mind, Straussians and Neoplatonists alike each give us access to a major aspect of the brilliance of Plato, in a way that the great majority of us would never be able to arrive at on our own, without help.

To embrace either one of them is a source of delight and insight. Being a disciple in either tradition opens the world to us in ways we could never expect.

For this reason, it is right to have great respect for those in each camp. It is also appropriate, though, at least in my view, to feel an incomprehension at the way the two camps keep so carefully and rigorously separate from one another. Each does already have great intellectual riches such that it can sustain itself for a lifetime of happy study without any need for the other — but the two together, in my experience, combine to open up an even more magnificent world of possibilities.

I see a faulty way of reasoning as being what divides the two sides. The dividing line seems to be the question of whether we think Plato may have been using his public teaching for political purposes or not. If we think the public appearance of his teachings was fundamentally rhetorical and prudential and thus not fully sincere, then we are Straussians. If we think it was truly metaphysical and moral in aim and therefore could not have been merely political or prudent, we fit in more with the Neoplatonists.

However, these two sides are easily made one by a simple realization: Plato’s teachings do not need to have been fictitious for them to have been presented in a way that had a political motivation. If Plato’s teachings were true, this does not in any way prevent them from having been formulated in their context to encourage certain political ends.

And indeed, when we read the dialogues this seems to be precisely what Socrates is doing. He adapts some one or another part of his thinking to a particular situation and presents it in a way intended to make his hearers change their way of thinking and acting.

We could hypothetically imitate him today by using the true insights of Neoplatonism in the sorts of social stratagems that absorb the studies of Straussians. Neoplatonism’s account of the world is extremely flexible and adaptable and would be well-suited to it.

And if we ever were to see a joining of that sort, I believe we’d also soon notice what we might call a temperamental compatibility. This brings us back to what I was saying about parallels.

Straussians and Neoplatonists today are alike in having to love Plato’s thought far more than it is fashionable to do. They are also alike in needing to care more about truth and wisdom than they care about social pressures, respect, advancement, conventional opinion.

And of course, there are also in each group many less intelligent representatives, who are pugnacious without an intellectual foundation, who are, let’s be honest, kind of weird, who love to make inside jokes and sneer at all who aren’t part of the in-group, and who can always be held up as a perfect example of why “I’d never want to be part of that group!”

But let’s not be distracted by that sort of thing.

If we are able to be open, it may be that when we listen to each other, we will find we have something to learn, and even more, will appreciate the mysterious and enchanting beauty that infuses the other of these two streams of thought. It might help stir some of the excitement that we first felt in reading Plato himself.

We can be allies. We were not born enemies — if anything, we were born siblings. The two legacies can be joined. Together, we hold a view of reality that could hardly, in my view, be surpassed.

PS — I realize that I haven’t here convinced any Straussians that Plotinus got it right, nor any Neoplatonists that Strauss did. That wasn’t my goal. I’m only saying that the two options aren’t at all exclusive, and that someone who is attracted by one approach should not be too surprised to discover that the other one might turn out to be similarly agreeable.

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