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William H.F. Altman, The Bogotá Lectures; §3. “Plato and ‘Plato’”

William H.F. Altman, The Bogotá Lectures; §3. “Plato And ‘Plato’”

There is no doubt that Nietzsche’s relationship to Plato is a complicated one. In my book on Nietzsche, I tried to show that this complexity derives from his attraction to the elitist ethos of Plato’s dialogues and that he therefore uses some characteristically Platonic tropes to advance his war against Platonism.[1] To take the most prominent example, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra descends from the mountains to the “Cave” of the Last Men in order to enlighten them; thus far, we see the elitist ethos of Plato. But Zarathustra’s joyful affirmation of the dancing innocence of Becoming advances Nietzsche’s own unwavering determination to eliminate the transcendent and otherworldly “Beyond” of Platonism’s Being. By using Platonic means to an anti-Platonist end, Nietzsche certainly created some interesting difficulties for himself, and the “ultra-modern” approach to these difficulties would be to reinterpret Platonism’s most sincere and important modern enemy as somehow Plato’s friend. In other words, complicating the crystal clarity of Nietzsche’s distinctively “modern” attack on Plato is an “ultra-modern” revisionism that tries to find a true Socratic or Platonist in Nietzsche.[2] Instead of entering into further debate with these revisionists,[3] I will try to show why the “ultra-modern” approach to Plato turns him into “Plato.” And for the present, I will point only to Nietzsche’s famous claim that Christianity is Platonism for the masses.[4] Nobody can be in any doubt about Nietzsche’s hatred of Christianity,[5] nor should anyone who admires Nietzsche for his honesty—as I do—be in doubt as to the sincerity and depth of his hatred for Platonism, attracted though he may have been and indeed was to whatever it was that made Platonism’s version of Christianity exclusively for the elite.

I will begin trying to explain the difference between Plato and “Plato” by considering the last words of Socrates. First of all, the simple fact that we are considering any philosopher’s “last words” should be recognized as emblematic of what the Socratic “rupture” was all about.  The Socratics brought about a shift of attention away from a thinker’s deepest thoughts about the nature of the universe to the way a philosopher lived and died. In that sense, Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Eminent Philosophers is itself “Socratic.” If Presocratic philosophy began with wonder, Socratic philosophy begins with wonder about the wonderful things Socrates said and did. In his Apology of Socrates, for example, Xenophon reports two of his last jokes. Anticipating the dramatic situation that Plato would more fully exploit in Crito, Socrates asked those who were recommending that he avoid death by escaping from prison if they knew any place outside of Athens that was inaccessible to death.[6] And when Apollodorus lamented that his friend was being put to death unjustly, Socrates asked: “Would you prefer if I were being put to death justly?”[7] I would have been far less critical of Laks and Most last night if they had included these testimonia in the “D” section of their chapter, each with the words of Socrates in bold typeface.[8] But as delicious and revealingly “Socratic” as are these two jokes, Plato’s report of Socrates’ last words marks the culmination of literature’s greatest Heldentod, for it is as Platonism’s hero that Socrates greets death with a joke. “Crito! We owe a rooster to Asclepius, so offer and don’t neglect it.”[9]

Nietzsche was in no doubt about the meaning of these words. In two famous passages,[10] he criticizes Socrates as a life-denier who likened life itself to a disease from which he had only now been cured. What creates a smooth transition between last night’s lecture and this one is an article by Glenn Most on Socrates’ last words.[11] As was earlier the case with Most’s apparent rejection of Nietzsche’s “rupture” model of what it meant to be “Presocratic,” Most now rejects Nietzsche’s explanation of Socrates’ last words. In this context, Nietzsche’s criticism of Socrates’ life-denial as what I am calling “modern,” and that criticism marked a reversal: Socrates’ classic Heldentod was transformed into a cowardly evasion of life. Glenn Most disagrees with Nietzsche not in order to restore Socrates’ heroism but rather to deny that he should have interpreted Socrates’ words as life-denial. And there is a more profound but equally revealing difference: Nietzsche is not questioning the accuracy of Plato’s report but is attacking Socrates directly. Most’s focus, however, is on Plato, and he is attempting to show that what Plato intended Socrates’ last words to mean was not what Nietzsche took them to mean. In effect, Most showed that Socrates’ last words were not as philosophically objectionable by Nietzsche’s own standards as Nietzsche himself took them to be. Most is not rejecting either Socrates or Nietzsche but is rather making Plato less of a Platonist than Nietzsche had assumed that he was.

Beginning with Aristotle if not before, Platonism has always had enemies, and as I remarked last night, it will continue to have them forever. A radical critique of Becoming—and that means the world as we know it and life as we live it—based on the superiority of unchanging Being is undoubtedly an example of what Nietzsche would later call “a revaluation of values.” Plato embodied that revolutionary revaluation in his dialogues as whole, in the Allegory of the Cave in particular, and in the immortal story of the life and death of Socrates in general. As an anti-Platonist, Nietzsche can stand alongside Aristotle as his modern successor, and the crucial point is that both the modern Nietzsche and the ancient Aristotle understand that Plato was a Platonist and attack him on that basis. Even the post-Aristotle attempt to use the chronology of composition to show that Plato revised, outgrew, and ultimately rejected his own Platonism—especially as reflected in his Phaedo—acknowledged, at least, that Plato had at one time been a Platonist. And this is exactly what I am going to show tonight that an ultra-modern approach to Plato does not acknowledge, and which will therefore replace Plato with “Plato,” a philosopher who is just as hostile to Platonism as Nietzsche and Aristotle were. In the first lecture on Aristotle, I emphasized the process by which “Plato” became more Aristotelian than Aristotle himself had thought he was. Tonight, my goal is to show how Nietzsche’s modern followers would create a “Plato” who was more Nietzschean than Nietzsche had thought.

Not surprisingly, the seeds of this ultra-modern transformation are already present in Nietzsche, but not in the way revisionist Nietzscheans want it to be. For Nietzsche, Plato was at once an enemy and a problem, and more specifically a problem that revealed a self-contradiction inseparable from Nietzsche’s project. For all of his elitism and aristocratic ethos, for all of his contempt for the herd of “Last Men,” Nietzsche’s radical anti-Platonism brings his ontology down to the level of the man on the street.[12] Articulate and perceptive on “the slave-revolt in morality,” Nietzsche is oblivious and therefore silent when it comes to his own “slave-revolt in metaphysics.” Thanks to the primordial division between Being and Becoming, there is no bifurcation between ontology and a spiritual aristocracy. If there is a herd in Plato, it is enslaved to shadows, chained to its bodies, and incapable of exiting the Cave. But the Platonic elitist who manages to transcend Becoming is then faced with the choice that creates “the crisis of the Republic.”[13] Keenly aware that they could only have left the Cave with the help of Socrates, Plato, and those the two of them have inspired, the Platonist does what no merely self-interested slave would ever do: she honors the life-transcending excellence of Being by helping others to transcend the limits of Becoming. Nietzsche was right: thanks to the altruism at its core, Christianity is Platonism for the masses. But there is, of course, a difference: Plato’s is an elitist altruism, well preserved in the French phrase noblesse oblige. As opposed to Nietzsche’s, then, Plato’s elitism is consistent with his ontology. Only those spiritual aristocrats capable of emancipation from the metaphysical slavery of the Cave will possess the nobility of spirit that makes self-sacrifice for others the only choice worthy of themselves. As a result, the Platonist will treat the fear of death as a joke, just as Socrates did.

For the present, however, it is necessary to return to the shadows in order to show how the Plato of Platonism was transformed into the post-Nietzsche and thus ultra-modern “Plato.” I will illustrate that transformation first with the lectures Martin Heidegger gave on Plato’s Sophist at the University of Marburg in 1924, with his student Hans Georg Gadamer in attendance. Since Sophist contains the famous passage about a γιγαντομαχία between the materialists who “drag everything down to earth out of heaven and the unseen”[14] and “the friends of the forms,” Heidegger might have taken the opportunity to identify Plato with the latter and Nietzsche with the former. Unfortunately, he did not make things so simple. Nor does Heidegger make any effort to distinguish Plato from his Eleatic Stranger, and since he begins the class with a series of lectures on Aristotle, he treats the dialogue as a text, and carefully explicates it on its basis what he takes to be Plato’s own views. What interests me in all of this is not Heidegger’s interpretation of the dialogue as a whole but rather one detail of that interpretation that led Gadamer to criticize his teacher many years later. I will use this detail to illustrate how Gadamer—the “ultra-modern” in the story—will criticize Heidegger for criticizing Plato but in the process will be defending a Heideggerian “Plato.”

I will start the story at the end, with Gadamer’s criticism.[15] Gadamer claimed that his teacher’s approach was based on the misconception that the dialogue marked an inferior way station on the road to Aristotle, while his own more mature approach locates Plato’s concern with “the question of Being,” in other words: with Heidegger’s distinctive concern with and revival of die Seinsfrage: “My own works on Plato have directed me, on the contrary, ever more to the dialectical dialogues of the late period, and my immersion in the Sophist has presented it to me more and more as the opening of horizons within which, in fact, the question about Being and the Logos shows itself in a variety of lights, but can scarcely be seen as a mere portal to Aristotelian physics and the metaphysics grounded upon it.”[16] Gadamer emphasizes one error of Heidegger’s in particular: the way his teacher treats the Stranger’s claim that Motion and Rest are “the most opposite things.”[17] Young Theaetetus proclaims the two unmixable,[18] a verdict that Heidegger accepts as both Platonic and wrong.[19] For Gadamer, by contrast, this proclamation is erroneous, and it is only Theaetetus, not the Stranger who upholds the false claim that Motion and Rest are “the most opposite. Anticipating later hermeneutic methods for reading Plato, Gadamer regards the Stranger’s confirmation as merely tactical, with Plato’s true purpose being to bring Motion and Rest together through the Logos: “The unifying compatibility of motion and rest, of Becoming (or rather alteration) with Being (or rather continuation) becomes the decisive new insight.[20]

Here, by contrast, is Heidegger’s response to this passage: “Although Plato later says that there is a certain Commonality between Motion and Rest—i.e., insofar as they are different, determined by the Different—he does not yet see the genuine connection, the peculiar substantive Commonality between Motion and Rest.”[21] It will be noted that, unlike his master, Gadamer does not criticize Plato. But since both teacher and student agree that Motion and Rest should not be disjoined, the real difference here is that Heidegger’s Plato—who wants to preserve an unchanging realm of what he called “Being”—remains a Platonist,[22] while Gadamer’s does not. Gadamer uses hermeneutic subtlety to explain the apparent disjunction between Motion and Rest as purely tactical or pedagogical. For Heidegger, by contrast, the separation of Rest from Motion points to an unresolved tension in Plato’s own thought that Aristotle will exploit and that Heidegger will resolve. For Heidegger, Plato’s discussion of Motion and Rest remains on the inferior ontic level because Plato himself does not grasp the ontological significance of the union between thinker and thought that Heidegger will eventually embody in Dasein. Gadamer, by contrasts, reads Heidegger’s solution back into his “Plato,” who becomes more Heideggerian than Heidegger had thought. Here, then, is a pattern we have seen before and will see again.

The Tübingen School repeated this pattern after the Second World War. Having summarized Heidegger’s attack on the Platonic Idea on the basis of texts from his Introduction to Metaphysics, Hans Joachim Krämer remarks in Arete bei Platon und Aristoteles: “This reading, which rests entirely on the popular conception of Plato, will be deprived of its essential presuppositions . . . with the demonstration of Plato the ἀρχή-thinker.[23] For Krämer, “Plato the archê-thinker” is not the traditional proponent of the Ideas, and is therefore specifically immune to Heidegger’s criticism. As a result, Krämer’s Heidegger made the same error Gadamer’s did: “Heidegger himself, however, did not take account of the historical relationship of his conception of Being with that of Plato, because he did not take the indirect Platonic tradition into consideration.”[24] While admitting that Heidegger’s thought is incompatible with “the duality of the sensible world and the intelligible world,” Krämer insists that the combination or rather integration of the One and the Indefinite Dyad restores the kind of “Plato” Heidegger should embrace: “the Being of Heidegger, actually, can be compared with the Platonic sphere of the principles considered as a whole.”[25] And not surprisingly, it is the One that makes Tübingen’s “Plato” the philosopher of immanence, not transcendence.[26]

Krämer was responding to Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics, and the following passage from that important book is worth quoting in order to illustrate what I am calling the “modern” attack on the real Plato, inspired by the intersection of Nietzsche and the Presocratics: “Only with the sophists and Plato was seeming explained as, and thus reduced to, mere seeming. At the same time, Being as idea was elevated to a supersensory realm. The chasm [Kluft], χωρισμός, was torn open between the merely apparent beings here below and the real Being somewhere up there. Christian doctrine then established itself in this Kluft, while at the same time reinterpreting the Below as the created and the Above as the Creator, and with weapons thus reforged, it set itself against antiquity (as paganism) and distorted it. And so Nietzsche is right to say that Christianity is Platonism for the people. In contrast, the great age of Greek Dasein is a unique, creative self-assertion amid the turmoil of the multiply intertwined counterplay of the powers of Being and seeming.”[27] It is Heraclitus and Parmenides—the great Presocratics whose positions Heidegger attempts to synthesize[28]—who constitute “the great age of Greek Dasein,” and the renewed attention to Dasein in Sein und Zeit aims to recover the damage done by the Platonic Kluft or χωρισμός.[29] Not surprisingly, Parmenides B3 plays a crucial role in this recovery;[30] indeed Heidegger uses the word Δόξα to rehabilitate what for Plato (but apparently not for Parmenides!) was “mere seeming.”[31]

But the crucial point for now is that Heidegger’s Plato, like Nietzsche’s before him, still remains Plato; it is their most ultra-modern followers who will create “Plato,” a Kluft-negating anticipator of Dasein or the Will to Power who merely seems to be Plato. And as remarkable as it may seem, Jacques Derrida, often taken to be the prophet of post-modernism, is in fact also merely “modern” with respect to Plato. The crucial text here is Derrida’s 1993 essay on Plato’s Timaeus, and more specifically on the Receptacle or χώρα.[32] Derrida never even raises the possibility that Timaeus might not speak for Plato, but shows instead that the χώρα undermines the dualism—based on the Kluft or χωρισμός between Being and Becoming—that Derrida still regards as intrinsic to Platonism. Make no mistake: Derrida, like Heidegger, regards “Platonism” as profoundly misguided. And he unquestionably takes a step further than Heidegger—who might well have achieved the same insight on the basis of Sophist but didn’t—that Plato’s own text undermines its author’s Platonism.[33] For Derrida, it is the one-sided “abstraction” implicit in Platonism itself that makes Timaeus ripe for deconstruction,[34] and he therefore calls χώρα “the gaping chasm in the middle of the book.”[35] Predictably attempts have been made to cover over the gaping chasm that Derrida discovers—accurately in my view—in the Receptacle,[36] but his χώρα-based critique of Platonism has also spawned even more radical offspring.

It is Drew Hyland, who provides the “ultra-modern” response to Derrida. Influenced by Leo Strauss—more on him later—Heidegger,[37] and Gadamer,[38] Hyland’s “ultra-modernism” is on full display in his 2004 book Questioning Platonism, where he explains his relationship with Derrida in an important note: “I thus share with Derrida one crucial thesis: anything like Platonism is deeply and continually deconstructed in the Platonic dialogues. We disagree, however, in that I do not think that Platonism is asserted by Plato within the dialogues as his teaching.”[39] Derrida’s “modern” error, according to Hyland, is that he still mistakenly considered Plato to be a Platonist.[40] But Hyland’s Derrida is right about the chora, and Hyland claims that it, along with eros and the Good,[41] deconstructs the dualism of Being and Becoming: “Indeed what the khora is marginal to, what it does deconstruct, that of which it does constitute the differance, is exactly the straightforward dualism of eternal Being and ever-changing becoming with which Timaeus begins his first beginning and which Derrida persists in identifying as Platonism. But is it at all plausible that this deconstructive moment takes place, as it were, in spite of Plato, that he was unaware of, or at least could not control, the way it undercuts the dualism of Timaeus’ first beginning?”[42]

This proves to be an excellent question, and points for the first time to the last turning or reversing inflection-point in these lectures: my own. It is precisely because I do not think that Timaeus speaks for Plato and because I regard his cosmological discourse as the equivalent of Parmenides’ deliberately deceptive Δόξα—in a word, because I regard Plato’s Timaeus as a basanistic text—that makes my position so close to Hyland’s. The difference, of course, is that I do not regard Timaeus as “what Plato said,” and thus have set myself in opposition to Aristotle and Raphael from the start. Considered as basanistic, Plato’s Timaeus is intended to test the reader’s commitment to the separation between Being and Becoming, the essence of Platonism as taught in Republic, the dialogue which it unmistakably follows in what I call “the Reading Order of Plato’s Dialogues.” And to understand the difficulty and importance of the test Plato embodies in his cosmological Timaeus, it suffices to add merely a “merely” to Hyland’s statement about “the straightforward dualism of eternal Being and ever-changing becoming with which Timaeus [merely] begins his first beginning.” Derrida is right: the χώρα is “the gaping chasm in the middle of the book,” the chasm that swallows the Kluft. And Hyland too is right to think that Plato is fully aware of this fact. Hyland’s error is Aristotle’s, and thus the oldest one in the book: he assumes, as Derrida does as well, that Timaeus speaks for Plato. What makes Hyland “ultra-modern,” then, is that his “Plato” has become the enemy of Platonism.[43]

Although I have emphasized the Germans in describing the transition from “modern” to “ultra-modern,” I need to make it clear that there is an Anglophone version of this phenomenon. Of course Hyland is writing and thinking in English, but his intellectual roots are on the Continent. The Analytic route to an anti-Platonist “Plato” emerges from the Order of Composition paradigm, whereby the author of Sophist, Timaeus, and Laws can be shown to move away from, revise, or even reject his earlier Platonism. Conventionally regarded as incompatible, the Continental and Analytic approaches can therefore be shown to converge in interesting ways. Consider, for example, the relationship between Motion and Rest that divided Gadamer’s approach to Plato’s Sophist from Heidegger’s. In “An Ambiguity in the Sophist,” Gregory Vlastos adopted the same “modern” position that Heidegger did: as a Platonist, Plato had incorrectly made “Motion” and “Rest” into opposites.[44] First David Reeve,[45] and more recently Mary Louise Gill, have argued for Gadamer’s position: “Throughout the latter part of the Sophist the Stranger maintains the façade that change and rest are opposites that exclude each other.”[46] The combinability of Motion and Rest is central to Gill’s reconstruction of Plato’s missing Philosopher, a reconstruction in which Aristotle plays an important role.[47] Most importantly, her explanation of the “façade” in Sophist must be classified, like Gadamer’s, as pedagogical: “He [sc. Plato] used change and rest instead to provoke us into recognizing that change and rest are full-fledged great kinds on a par with being, sameness, and difference, which pervade everything, including each another.”[48] Given the fact that this point of view destroys Parmenides’ claim that Being is unmoving and immovable, we can agree with Gill that Plato is provoking us without equating him with either the parricidal Eleatic Stranger or with “Plato.”

Alfred North Whitehead’s famous remark that the history of philosophy was comprised of “footnotes to Plato” is no doubt high praise, but it is difficult to praise Plato too highly. Leaving aside the brilliance of his literary achievement, the praise I believe he deserves with respect to the history of philosophy is that he makes sense of it, brings order to it, and generally makes it more intelligible. For those who recognize that the Kluft or χωρισμός is the essence of Platonism, an awareness of that primordial division brings an amazing unity to seemingly different or even opposite philosophical phenomena. From a Platonist’s perspective, Analytic and Continental philosophy are not as different from each other as they seem to others. There is no doubt that Motion and Rest cannot be distinguished in the realm of Becoming; indeed the fact that something can move only in relation to what rests in part explains why Socrates places Δόξα between what is and what is not in Republic 5.[49] If there is no unchanging Being—and that means if there is no Platonism—the unity of Motion and Rest can be achieved equally by empiricists or idealists, by materialists or pantheists, indeed by anyone who seeks to provide some systematic account of “the whole.” Following Parmenides with respect to physics and Socrates with respect to ethics, Plato turned his attention elsewhere, and few have been those who followed his lead. But those that do will discover that he has brought to light a surprising unity among those who don’t, a unity that causes their distinctions to multiply ad infinitum—like those of the Eleatic Stranger—simply because they reject the primordial distinction at the center of Platonism.

My theme in these lectures is not, however, the history of philosophy. My purpose instead is to illuminate some significant turning- or inflection points in the interpretation of Plato. In tonight’s lecture, I am trying to bring to light the transition between comparatively conventional attacks on Plato—like those of Nietzsche and Heidegger—and a far more complicated and sophisticated interpretive move that appears to be defending Plato from such attacks but which really constitutes a far more radical attack on him. But before examining what I regard as the culmination or “last word” in what I am calling the replacement of Plato by “Plato,” I want to make clear from the start that this “ultra-modern” reversal, particularly in its most radical form, can itself be reversed for Plato’s benefit and can thus make possible a restoration of Platonism. Hyland’s critique of Derrida has already provided an example, and my last lecture will be dedicated to what might be called “a restorative reversal.” Although with openly anti-Platonist intent, Hyland’s reading of Timaeus paradoxically brings us infinitely closer to the real Plato than either Derrida’s deconstruction or Raphael’s picture can do. Indeed this is an easy case: since Timaeus, like Sophist, is a post-Republic dialogue, the more anti-Platonism that one discovers in the discourses of Timaeus or the Eleatic Stranger the better; indeed attempts to find Platonism in what they say shows that Plato’s friends can harm him even more than all but his most radical enemies. In other words, it is easy to reverse Hyland’s reading of Timaeus or Gill’s reading of Sophist by simply discarding the uncritical assumption that their principal speakers speak for Plato while preserving the rejection of Platonism their readings endorse.

But there is more difficult work to be done tonight, for Leo Strauss reverses Nietzsche, not Heidegger, when constructing his “Plato,” and is an open champion of a “continuity” model of the relationship between Socrates and the Presocratics that goes far beyond what Laks and Most only tacitly endorse. In last night’s lecture, I tried to show that the distinction between Socratic-Ciceronian “rupture” and Platonic-Aristotelian “continuity” is a false one because Xenophon, Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero are all agreed that Socrates can be distinguished from the Presocratics on the basis of his unconcern with physics and cosmology. Last night, I scarcely mentioned a more legitimate distinction, one that more effectively erases the distinction between Socratic and Presocratic. I named this model after Aristophanes and Arcesilaus, and in the context of Plato, Strauss is best understood its creator and champion. While appearing to defend both Xenophon and Plato, Strauss reverses and replaces their Socrates with one who remains a physicist but who, thanks to the friendly warning Aristophanes gave him in Clouds, will henceforth become a secret one. Although Strauss never mentions him, Archelaus is a perfect example of why Strauss regarded “philosophy” as inherently subversive and dangerous; the view that justice and nobility are merely conventional creates an inevitable conflict with “the city.” This, then, constitutes a first step toward clarifying the ultra-modern “Plato” who will emerge from Strauss’s Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy.[50]

But since the subject is a complicated one, it is advisable to take a step back before moving forward. A useful way to think of Strauss’s approach to the relationship between Socrates and the Presocratics is that it combines elements of both the “rupture” and the “continuity” models. It is only with respect to the political danger of Presocratic physics, and of its immoralist ethical implications in particular, that Strauss is upholding “continuity.” But Strauss’s intellectual roots are in Nietzsche,[51] who as first Most and then Laks insist, was a champion of the “rupture” model. To be sure Nietzsche’s version of “rupture” reversed the position of Xenophon, Plato, and Cicero with respect to its the value: he valorized the Presocratics at the expense of Socrates and the Socratics. In a project further advanced by Heidegger—and I should not be understood to be minimizing Heidegger’s influence on Strauss[52]—Nietzsche was taking the side of the Presocratics against Plato and Socrates. Strauss accepts this valuation: it is only because his Socrates is no longer either a Platonist or even a Socratic in the traditional sense that he will celebrate him. In that sense, then, the easy way to understand Strauss is that he is now proceeding along the same lines as Gadamer and Tübingen, only in his case his ultra-modern “Plato” is more Nietzschean than the real Plato that the merely “modern” Nietzsche had attacked. But Strauss’s advance on Nietzsche is not simply that he embraces “continuity” over “rupture” but because he has created an entirely new sense of “rupture” which resolves the problem that had bedeviled his teacher.

You will remember that at the beginning of tonight’s lecture I claimed that Nietzsche wants to preserve the elitist ethos he discovers in Plato while at the same time attacking Platonism on a crudely materialist basis I called “the slave revolt in metaphysics.” As a student of Nietzsche—indeed as the champion of re-enacting a Nietzschean modernity at the height of antiquity—Strauss adds nothing to his teacher’s anti-metaphysics aside from glamorizing it with the Greek word φύσις. What he does create is a new way to preserve the ethos of Platonic elitism: Strauss’s “philosophers,” beginning with his Socrates, will keep their immoralist physics—or more accurately, their Nietzschean anti-metaphysics—a secret. To the vulgar herd, they will present themselves as harmless and even as good and valuable citizens; they will spout the pieties of Platonism as a result. Socrates’ “rupture,” then, is not a question of content but of form: he will invent what Strauss calls “political philosophy” because it keeps secret the fact that philosophy is intrinsically apolitical or rather deadly dangerous to any polity in which it flourishes. It is therefore by the use of what Strauss calls “exotericism” that he can preserve Platonism’s aristocratic ethos in the service of a Nietzsche’s crude γιγαντομαχͅία against Platonism. It is therefore secrecy that constitutes the Socratic “rupture,” and the secret it conceals is precisely “continuity.” As a result, when Strauss calls this prudent concealment “Platonic political philosophy,” we are standing face to face with “Plato” in his most radical form.

It is in defense of this “Plato,” then, that Strauss will enact his famous interpretive reversals. With Platonism dismissed as nothing more than the carefully constructed exoteric shell created to shield philosophical immorality and atheism from the scrutiny of the vulgar, Callicles can emerge as Plato’s spokesman, the Athenian Stranger as Socrates in his true form, and Thrasymachus as the hero of the Republic. But it is not my purpose to demonstrate the weaknesses of these readings as interpretations of Plato; I hope to have shown that the intellectual context that makes such readings possible has already suggested how one might set about demonstrating that. Instead, I want to draw attention to the powerful methods that have made it possible for Strauss and his followers to read Plato as they do. This point is important and must be clearly understood. I hope to have shown that Strauss executes an ultra-modern “turning” of his already anti-Platonist teachers. In what remains of tonight’s lecture, I want to describe and celebrate the interpretive methods—the hermeneutic principles, if you will—that allowed Strauss to accomplish this reversal. But my goal in describing and celebrating these methods is not to uphold the interpretations that Strauss uses them to promote but rather to use those same methods to reverse Strauss’s reversal. And it is with that “reversal” that these lectures will end tomorrow night.

Consider first what makes a Thrasymachus-centered reading of Republic possible in the first place. Unlike the majority of his predecessors, Strauss’s readings are always enlightened by “the play of character.” In other words, Strauss is always aware that we are reading a dialogue and therefore that Plato’s views are not simply to be equated with those of any one of his characters. It is true that Strauss himself applies this hermeneutic principle very inconsistently and only, of course, when it brings to light his “Plato.” He will never, for example, emphasize the difference between Plato and either the Eleatic or the Athenian Strangers with the same subtlety and energy with which he deconstructs, with evident delight, what he called: “the obvious teaching of Socrates.”[53] As a result, even though Strauss wrote next to nothing about Timaeus, it is difficult to imagine him saying anything like what Aristotle did. In any case, he would never pass off the words of the pious platitudes of Socrates in Gorgias as “what Plato said.” How could he? It will be through Callicles that Strauss can construct his Nietzschean “Plato.” But the crucial point, and I hope to have already illustrated it tonight with examples from Sophist and Timaeus, is that distinguishing Plato from his principal characters is often the easiest route to the recovery of Platonism. Although Strauss naturally uses it for the opposite purpose, this tool will be important in accomplishing the reversal of Strauss’s reversal.

Next, consider the kind of “careful reading” that is necessary to transform Plato into “Plato.” In order to get around obvious manifestations of Platonism, small details must be emphasized at the expense of larger claims, especially the claims Strauss regards as merely exoteric. Strauss must often reverse the obvious meaning of the text, and to accomplish this he must repeatedly invoke the principle of “logographic necessity.”[54] Everything Plato has written he has written carefully, deliberately, and for a reason. His every word must be read with care. Just as the characters are important and must be interpreted as such, so must their words be. In addition to such linguistic subtleties, the dramatic action of the dialogue contains its own kind of “argument,” and “the careful reader” must attend to it throughout. Despite the fact that Strauss’s careful readers are always coaxed by phrases like “one must wonder” or “Socrates passes over” or “he is silent about” issues that consistently contribute to Strauss’s own interpretive ends, the principle of careful reading is an important and valuable one, and although he scarcely invented it, Strauss applied it to Plato in a refreshing and innovative way. As a result of his influence, more and more studies of Plato emphasize and therefore repeatedly mention “the reader,” and this is another salutary development.

Even Strauss’s exotericism has its salutary uses. For Strauss himself, of course, the “secret” must always undermine Platonism. But since Plato often attacks Platonism himself, particularly in dialogues like Timaeus and Sophist, “the careful reader” who reads in accordance with “logographic necessity” will repeatedly discover that it is a defense, not a critique of Platonism, that Plato “has written between the lines.” Although Strauss uses it only to discredit or deconstruct the “political” surface of subversive texts, he is aware that philosophers often use deliberate self-contradiction as a pedagogical tool.[55] After all, neither Plato nor Socrates ever say that Justice is what compels the philosopher to return to the Cave; the best I can do is show how Plato is provoking his “careful readers” to discover this for themselves. Although nothing could be less congenial to Strauss’s “Plato” than the altruism and idealism that summons or compels philosophers to sacrifice the balance of their merely mortal existence for the benefit of others, and to do so on the basis of a truth that they were born to remember, the fact remains that reversing Strauss on all these points can and must make use of Strauss’s own methods. There is an inner necessity at play here: it is precisely because Strauss is using these methods to negate Plato that an alternative application of them is useful for restoring him.[56]

Finally, there is Strauss’s attitude toward the dialogues as whole that must be considered. Since his “Plato” was never a Platonist, there can be no “middle period” Platonism for him to outgrow. As a result, Strauss is almost unique among mid-twentieth century Plato-interpreters for ignoring the Order of Composition paradigm. I’m not claiming that he does this for any particularly good reason, or that he offers another more salutary paradigm for ordering them instead. On the whole, indeed, first Strauss and then his followers tend to read each dialogue in isolation; this approach follows from the necessities of “careful reading,” “the play of character,” and “the argument of the action.” But this approach led first Strauss and then an increasing number of students to begin doing something at least as extraordinary as discarding Order of Composition: they began interpreting dialogues that had been rejected as inauthentic since the beginning of the nineteenth century. Strauss himself wrote an essay on Minos, and since then his students have left virtually no corner of the corpus Platonicum unexplored. It’s perfectly true that despised dialogues that more obviously undermine  “the obvious teaching of Socrates” have received the lion’s share of attention—Hipparchus and Cleitophon come to mind—but the trend is a valuable one, and contributes mightily toward the reversal of Strauss’s own ultra-modern reverse.

I have emphasized Strauss’s use of these tools not because he was unique in using them but only because it was his use of them that first affected me. Strongly influenced by Straussians long before I had heard the name “Leo Strauss,” I took up these tools as if they were natural or commonplace; only much later did I realize the distinctively “Straussian” baggage that came along with them and had made his use or rather misuse of them necessary. But since I have illustrated the ultra-modern “reversal” twice tonight by separating Plato from the protagonists in Sophist and Timaeus, I want to end with an insight that is truly unique to Strauss. Strauss discovered that Plato’s Laws is directly connected to Crito, and that the Athenian Stranger is who Socrates would have been had he escaped from prison to avoid the hemlock.[57] Committed as a matter of fixed principle to the quarrel between “philosophy” and “the city,” Strauss was compelled to find in Socrates’ death the archetypal justification for “political philosophy,” for it is only because of a prudent exotericism, Strauss claimed, that the “classical political rationalism” of “Athens” could survive the challenge of “Jerusalem.” Socrates’ willingness to die for the sake of both philosophy and the city, in accordance with the eloquent speech of the Athenian Laws in Crito, was therefore a problem for Strauss, and his solution was to find the real Socrates in the Athenian Stranger. It was therefore child’s-play to perform a Platonism-restoring “reversal” on this “solution”: Plato intended the Athenian Stranger to be the opposite of Socrates, a “Socrates” every bit as deceptively but revealingly fraudulent as Strauss’s “Plato.”



[1] See my Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche: The Philosopher of the Second Reich (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2013), xviii and §139.

[2] See especially Laurence Lampert, How Philosophy Became Socratic: A Study of Plato’s Protagoras, Charmides, and Republic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 14, 344-347, and 417.

[3] For a recent and balanced treatment, see Richard Bett, “Nietzsche and Plato” in Kim, Brill’s Companion to German Platonism, 249-270.

[4] Nietzsche, Jenseits von Gut und Böse, Vorrede.

[5] Pending, that is, the success of an “ultra-modern” revision of Paul.

[6] Xenophon, Apology of Socrates, 23.

[7] Xenophon, Apology of Socrates, 28.

[8] Cf. EGP, 33, P40-42 (“His Condemnation and Death). Prefaced by the “P” for “personal” rather than the “D” for doctrine—for a Socratics, the distinction is misguided—Laks and Most make no use of either Plato or Xenophon, excerpting instead passages from Cicero (P40), Diogenes Laertius (P41), and Diodorus Siculus (P42).

[9] Phaedo, 118a7-8.

[10] Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, §340 (“Der sterbende Sokrates”) and Götzen-Dämmerung, “Das Problem des Sokrates”).

[11] Glenn W. Most, “‘A Cock for Asclepius.’” Classical Quarterly (n.s.) 43, no. 1 (1993), 96-111.

[12] See Altman, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, §94 (“The slave revolt in metaphysics”).

[13] See my Plato the Teacher: The Crisis of the Republic (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2012).

[14] Plato, Sophist, 246a8-9 (F. M. Cornford translation).

[15] Hans Georg Gadamer, “Dialektik is nicht Sophistik: Theätet lernt das im Sophistes,” Gesammelte Werke 7, 338-369 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1991). Translations from this text are mine.

[16] Gadamer, “Dialektik is nicht Sophistik,” 367.

[17] Plato, Sophist, 250a8 (τὰ ἐναντιώτατα).

[18] Plato, Sophist, 252d4-11.

[19] See Martin Heidegger, Plato’s Sophist. Translated by Andre Schuwer and Richard Rojcewicz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), 357.

[20] Gadamer, “Dialektik is nicht Sophistik,” 360-61; this important passage continues: “What this means will not indeed be pursued further, but one will think about the mutual rapprochement of the two opponents in the battle of the giants. In response to the immateriality of intellection, the materialists come to understand Being as ‘dynamis’ while, on the other side, the recognition of life and ‘nous,’ and therefore of motion, has been demanded from the friends of the forms.”

[21] Heidegger, Plato’s Sophist, 357; I have deleted a reference and replaced the Greek words κοινωνία, κίνησις, στάσις, and ἕτερον with “Commonality,” “Motion,” “Rest,” and “Different.”

[22] Cf. Heidegger, Plato’s Sophist, 69: “Plato’s theory of the χωρισμός of the Ideas, where Plato indeed explicitly assigns the Ideas to a τόπος, namely the οὐρανός.”

[23] Hans Joachim Krämer, Arete bei Platon und Aristoteles: Zum Wesen und zur Geschichte der platonischen Ontologie (Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1959), 555n4 (teanslations from this work are mine); deleted in the ellipsis is: “—its negative theology, that attains its limit with but one basis, and the further-developed orientation, that reaches beyond Parmenides, of its ‘theory of ideas’—.”

[24] Hans Joachim Krämer, Plato and the Foundations of Metaphysics: A Work on the Theory of the Principles and Unwritten Doctrines of Plato with a Collection of the Fundamental Documents, edited and translated by John R. Catan (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), 172 (emphasis mine).

[25] Krämer, Plato and the Foundations, 173.

[26] Krämer, Arete bei Platon und Aristoteles, 547-48: “The One in its nimble worldliness is the highest standard of existence, value, and truth and thereby, as Measure (μέτρον), is in connection to the world. The concept One as Measure indicates thereby the basis of Being [Seinsgrund] in its relationship to the world generally and thus represents the correlation, the point of contact between the resting-in-itself [in sich ruhenden], transcendent Absolute and reality [der Realität].”

[27] Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, a new translation by Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000), 111.

[28] See Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, 102-103 (beginning with: “Even today, in accounts of the inception of Western philosophy, it is customary to oppose Parmenides’ teaching to that of Heraclitus”), 132-33, and 144-45.

[29] Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, 111: “(For the originary, essential connection between human Dasein, Being as such, truth in the sense of unconcealment, and untruth as covering-over, see Being and Time, §44 and §68.)” This parenthesis immediately follows the passage quoted in the text.

[30] Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, 146-48.

[31] Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, 110-111; note that this is the passage that immediately precedes the one quoted in the text.

[32] Jacques Derrida, Khôra (Paris: Galilée, 1993), translated in Jacques Derrida, On the Name, edited by Thomas Dutoit, 87-127 (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995).

[33] Derrida, On the Name, 119-120: “Platonism would mean, in these conditions, the thesis or the theme which one has extracted by artifice, misprision, and abstraction from the text, torn out of the written fiction of ‘Plato.’ Once this abstraction has been supercharged and deployed, it will be extended over all the fields of the text, of its ruses, overdeterminations, and reserves, which the abstraction will come to cover up and dissimulate. This will be called Platonism or the philosophy of Plato . . . ‘Platonism’ is thus certainly one of the effects of the text signed by Plato, for a long time, and for necessary reasons, the dominant effect, but this effect is always turned back against the text.”

[34] Derrida, On the Name, 92, 97, 103, and 113. See Paul Allen Miller, “The Platonic Remainder: Derrida’s Khôra and the Corpus Platonicum” in Miriam Leonard (ed.), Derrida and Antiquity, 321-341 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), particularly 334: “the deconstructive khôra functions in Derrida’s reading of the Timaeus in much the same way as the pharmakon does in his reading of Phaedrus.”

[35] Derrida, On the Name, 104.

[36] See Zina Giannopoulou, “Derrida’s Khôra, or Unnaming the Timaean Receptacle” in Richard D. Mohr and Barbara M. Sattler (eds.), One Book, the Whole Universe: Plato’s Timaeus Today, 165-178 (Las Vegas: Parmenides, 2010).

[37] See Drew Hyland, The Virtue of Philosophy: An Interpretation of Plato’s Charmides (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1981), 11-17 and 89-91.

[38] See Drew A. Hyland, Questioning Platonism: Continental Interpretations of Plato (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004), chapter 5 (“Gadamer’s Plato”), especially 179.

[39] Hyland, Questioning Platonism, 192 n. 23.

[40] Hyland, Questioning Platonism, 114: “he [sc. Derrida] believes that khora constitutes the deconstructive moment in Platonism, the differance of any Platonic dualism or doctrine of eternal essences.”

[41] Hyland, Questioning Platonism, 114-15: “Consider, then, the effect, taken together, of the three crucial notions of khôra, the Idea of the Good, and eros, three notions that no one could consider marginal to the Platonic dialogues. All three of these crucial notions undercut the clean dualism that constitutes Platonism, but each does so in a distinctive way.”

[42] Hyland, Questioning Platonism, 114.

[43] See also Drew A. Hyland, Finitude and Transcendence in the Platonic Dialogues (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), 165-66.

[44] See Gregory Vlastos, “An Ambiguity in the Sophist” (and Appendices) in Vlastos,

Platonic Studies, second edition, 270-322 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,

1981), 283, 285, 294, and 307.

[45] See C. D. C. Reeve, “Motion, Rest, and Dialectic in the Sophist.” Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 67 (1985), 47-64, especially 62.

[46] Mary Louise Gill, Philosophos: Plato’s Missing Dialogue (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 227n55.

[47] See Gill, Philosophos, 231-235; cf. Heidegger, Plato’s Sophist, 381-383.

[48] Gill, Philosophos, 228.

[49] Plato, Republic, 478c7.

[50] See Leo Strauss, Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983).

[51] “I can only say that Nietzsche so dominated and bewitched me between my 22nd and 30th years, that I literally believed everything that I understood of him.” (Letter of Strauss to Karl Löwith, June 23, 1935).

[52] In Leo Strauss, The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism; An Introduction to the Thought of Leo Strauss. Edited by Thomas Pangle (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 29 (“An Introduction to Heideggerian Existentialism”), Strauss famously describes Heidegger as “the only great thinker in our time.”

[53] “Teaching is really great! And I believe I’m doing it to the delight of my auditors. It’s especially charming when one introduces, without a wink, the obvious teaching of Socrates [this part is in English] and then, in Blitzkrieg [im Blitz-krieg] against these primitive field-works, over-runs them.” (Letter of Strauss to Jacob Klein, 28 November 1939; translation mine); see Leo Strauss, Gesammelte Schriften, volume 3; Hobbes’ politische Wissenschaft und zugehörige Schriften—Briefe. Edited by Heinrich Meier, with the editorial assistance of Wiebke Meier (Stuttgart and Weimar: J. B. Metzler, 2002), 587.

[54] Plato, Phaedrus, 264b7.

[55] See Leo Strauss, “Fârâbî’s Plato.” Louis Ginzberg Jubilee Volume, 357-393 (New York: American Academy for Jewish Research, 1945), 369.

[56] See Strauss, Gesammelte Schriften 3, 568 (Letter of Strauss to Jacob Klein, 16 February 1939; translation mine): “The Republic is beginning to become clear to me. My conjecture from the previous year, that its actual theme is the question of the relationship between the political and theoretical life, and that it is dedicated to a radical critique and condemnation of the political life, has proved completely right. It has therefore defined itself with utmost precision: the Republic is indeed an ironic justification [Rechtfertigung] of ἀδικία [injustice], for Philosophy is injustice—that comes out with wondrous clarity in the dialogue with Thrasymachus.”

[57] See Strauss, Gesammelte Schriften 3, 567 (Letter of Strauss to Jacob Klein, 16 February, 1939; translation mine): “Laws depends on the fiction that Socrates has escaped from prison, first to Thessaly and then to Crete—he escapes because he does not want to die—. Laws is, I believe, clear to me now.”


Also see “§1. Plato and Aristotle”; “§2. “Plato and the ‘Presocratics’”; “ and “§4. The Return to Platonism

William H. F. AltmanWilliam H. F. Altman

William H. F. Altman

William H.F. Altman is a retired public high school teacher of history and the humanities generally who is the author of published monographs about Nietzsche, Heidegger, Leo Strauss, and Cicero. He is presently finishing his five-volume study of "the Reading Order of the Platonic dialogues,” a project that began with Plato the Teacher: The Crisis of the Republic (Lexington Books, 2012).

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