Justice Calls from a Ditch: Leo Strauss on Plato’s Euthyphro

Leo Strauss on Plato’s Euthyphro: The 1948 Notebook with Lectures and Critical Writings. Edited by Hannes Kerber and Svetozar Y. Minkov. Penn State University Press, 2023. Hardcover. 240 pp. $74.95.

Present scholars would agree one of the most well known aspects of Leo Strauss’ intellectual legacy is his juxtaposition of reason and revelation, Athens and Jerusalem. Jerusalem, chosen as the chosen city of God’s chosen people–the capital of the land promised to the Jews, if their Scriptures are to be believed. Revelation is simply not up to us, and our places are established by it as by law. Athens is chosen as the philosophical city for different reasons, since it isn’t clear Lady Philosophy chooses any place besides the ones which her acolytes make for her. Athens is therefore more accidental, but it stands in, in the famous phrase, for all places that philosophy lives on.

Standing behind Plato’s Euthyphro is always the question of islam. In the 2020s this has fallen out of fashion as a question, but the idea of submission was a fascination for much of the past twenty years. How quickly things change. Imagine there is a God. Imagine He has told us how to live. Imagine he has the power to reward loyal followers and punish dissidents. In such a world submission to such a God would in fact be wise. Euthyphro famously presents this as a live option and explores it: “Are the gods just, or is the just just because the gods say so?” The latter option is islam; submit to what God has said because God said it. Christians would traditionally reject the dichotomy as false using God’s nature, His immutability and simplicity, as the eye of a needle which preserves both the goods of the intellect and the truths of Scripture. This is because in Christianity God, as ultimately simple, has no parts. His will is therefore identical with His goodness which is identical to His unchanging being. In Leo Strauss On Plato’s Euthyphro the general thrust of the argument is that the philosophers have a solution to the dilemma that avoids islam as we traditionally understand it, but is not the clever way through the question in the Christian fashion either. Philosophy is victorious and “the gods” are just the stories we tell to communicate what the philosophers (and the philosophers alone) have the intellect and the courage to see directly.

This is a composite book. After the introduction by Hannes Kerber and Svetozar Y. Minkov, it moves on to two pieces by Strauss. First, his notebook from his readings of Euthyphro and second, a lecture (and notes) which Strauss delivered at least once, perhaps twice (there are also brief notes on the Crito). But that is not the end of the book. It continues with three interpretive essays, one each by the scholars who write the introduction, and a third by Wayne Ambler. Finally, to bring the full jam band back together the book ends with Seth Benardete’s line by line translation of the Euthyphro, with the Greek as well, for the reader’s pleasure.

It is not hard to see why Strauss never published this in its current form. He makes his points clearly, almost embarrassingly so. For example in the notebook portion, Strauss explains why dialogues of Plato must be a conversation: “A special kind of conversation: a conversation that serves the purpose… reaching an agreement: a discussion. Why?… true thought is thought in which all men can agree—agreement a criterion of truth—but: not all agreement is agreement in truth—1) common bias; 2) one fools the other: persuasion ≠ conviction.—agreement between unbiased and intelligent people —> question of the character of the interlocutors. This will decide on the value of the discussion” (20, emphasis original). Essentially if someone can be fooled they need not be attended to in determining the truth. This sounds well and good. After all, the fools of the world do not know much, and have little to teach the wise. Still, the response beckons, a wise man can learn even from unjust criticism. Strauss’ injection here taken to its logical conclusion would set up a requirement for the wise to spend their time first working to fool everyone, since only the failed attempt at deception can exist as proof of the character of the conversant to be of the highest quality—the quality required for philosophy. Of course this sort of thinking overlooks the most basic observation: that habituation into deception is damaging for the character of the deceiver himself. It might turn out that the follower of Strauss who takes this advice eventually runs into a truth teller so wise and just he cannot be deceived, but the habit of deception, and the suspicion that the world is full of honest fools, are so engrained that he would not recognize the true, just man when he is right in front of his nose. Strauss is blessedly, or perhaps damnably, rarely this clear in his published writings.

It is refreshing to hear the text offering Strauss’ thoughts in this more direct sense. Though on the other hand one ought not to judge too harshly. After all, it isn’t clear that the random notes sitting in the margins of my books, and the scraps of paper, random texts, emails, tweets, represent the truer man than the published works. Surely the things born to completion by Strauss in his life ought to be given greater weight in our assessment of his work. These later publications are group efforts. It is all-together that this work ought to be judged. Justice is, after all, the comprehensive account of the soul. So these should be reckoned as what they are; not as a single representative of Strauss’ thought, but rather as a thought which passed through him, onto paper, through another and on to us. The thinking we see here is intended to spark thought in the reader rather than to conclude the conversation. Such conversations are refreshments for the soul; perhaps we should not damn Strauss on the basis of his Euthyphro notebook.

The problem I outlined two paragraphs above is not isolated, however. We see it in various places throughout the text. At a point which is something like a climax of the lecture, Strauss says “the highest human type gives us an inkling of what the gods might be. But the highest human type is the wise man” (86, emphasis here, and elsewhere, original). So far so Platonic. Socrates is the new Achilles—Achilles as he should have been. Strauss continues, “the wise man will therefore be the best clue at our disposal in regard to the gods. Now the wise man loves more the people who do what he does than those who merely do what he tells them to do, and who do not do what he does” (86-87). This leads us to wonder what it is that the wise man is doing? Well he is asking questions. And he is doing so in such a way to hide what he has come to know from his interlocutors, in short to deceive them while also trying to learn from them. The gods we should be pious towards, according to Strauss, are like this. Wise men working to deceive one another in order to gain supremacy over one another. But each victory over the fool exposes the tragic sadness that the unfooled wise man is alone. Friendship is impossible, even if the camaraderie of liars and flatterers is accessible. The wages of pride belong to those who follow this path. Strauss’ analysis of Euthyphro presents a situation where the gods one ought to worship are the “best and justest” (124), i.e. they are ones who will submit to the idea of justice accessible only to the wisest man. But this analysis never works to first establish whether there is a true God. Lacking such a true God, philosophers live as a law unto themselves and attempt to establish themselves as law over other men. God forbid…

It is perhaps not so surprising that Leo Strauss did not ever polish and publish his sketch of Plato’s Euthyphro. Had he been a devout Jew or a Christian, as I am, he would have had an obligation to pass his intellect through the text of texts he had confessed was the key truth which unlocks all truths. However, being a mere philosopher he lived under no obligation but had to make his way as best he could. This volume is in the tradition of posthumous attempts to wrestle with essays and arguments that might have been even while it acknowledges that some of this material has appeared before.[1] As such it brings to light many interesting juxtapositions and many more fascinating questions from an intellect to which I owe a great deal. It may not add much to the voluminous history of Plato scholarship, but it will be a prize possession among followers of the rabbi of reason. God willing the essay it might have been may yet come to be in the work of the philosophers of the future.

Colin Redemer (Ph.D. candidate, University of Aberdeen) is Vice-President of the Davenant Institute and the Provost of Davenant Hall, Poetry Editor and podcast co-host for Ad Fontes, as well as a professor at St. Mary’s College, California. He also regularly lectures in Philosophy at Davenant Hall, including ongoing cycles in the works of Plato and Aristotle. Follow him on Twitter @REDEMTHETIMES.

  1. “On the Euthypron” appeared as a 29 paragraph chapter in Pangle’s The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism. This material reappears here in what the authors claim is a more lightly edited version as a 21 paragraph chapter titled “Strauss’s Lecture “on Plato’s Euthyphron” (1952)”. But further the references to the Euthyphro throughout Strauss’s corpus show clear evidence of the work on display in this volume.


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