Leo Strauss and Nietzsche
University of Chicago Press; 1996
Studying an essay with "a face only a scholar could love"
Laurence Lampert's Introduction to his brilliant book, Leo Strauss and Nietzsche, points out the singular value of his subject, which is Strauss' essay "Note on the Plan of Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil", first published in 1973. Lampert's book is a philosophical and historical detective story, a philosophical-procedural delight of the highest order elucidated in fine detail — but there are a few prerequisites, which I'll get to shortly.
I quote Lampert's overview in some detail, because I want you to glimpse the importance of the philosophical work here — by several minds, as I'll also get to shortly. Lampert writes:
Five minds in philosophy
I suggested above that Leo Strauss and Nietzsche involves a historico-philosophical analysis of work by several minds. These are:
The central three are our main focus, since we know Socrates largely through Plato's eyes; while Lampert is our narrator and guide to the sweet and false fruit amidst this tangled grapevine. We must keep certain of their ideas clear in our minds, whether explicit or dissembled, and whether as fresh grapes in their original harvest or as pressed into wine by later thinkers. Clarifying this wild, knotted, and concealed history is the thrust of Lampert's book. Lampert's grand view from the details up to the overarching issues, shared with us via his patient disentangling and his own superb clarity of expression, makes this philosophical labor across the millennia quite accessible.
A few other key philosophical thinkers feature in Lampert's discussion: Alfarabi, Maimonides, Machiavelli, Bacon, and Descartes. Some more-ancient names recurring herein are: Homer, Aristophanes, and Thucydides. Beyond these, Nietzsche's use of the great mythic names Zarathustra and Dionysos inevitably recur prominently.
When reading a detective story, we generally don't bother to keep in mind that there are requirements for properly reading such a work. Yet we cannot reasonably match wits with the novelist's detectives and policemen, major and minor criminals, and guilty-looking bystanders, unless we have a fair idea of what is legal and ethical and their opposites, and what is socially normal and what seems suspicious. We must be able to analyze the welter of laws, mores, clues, habits, impulses, and so on.
My review is not designed to summarize the plot, as it were, of Laurence Lampert's philosophical-procedural analysis. Rather I hope to engage your interest and anticipation, to encourage you to read the subject material if you have not already, and thus to involve you in discovering this close texture of vital ideas and hence — thinking along with the thinkers named above — these ideas' glorious historical sweep.
I emphasize prerequisites, not because Lampert is any less than beautifully clear, but because subtle ideas over two and a half millennia are at issue. I think it is best and easiest to approach this procession of ideas in a certain natural sequence. We will get the most out of this book if we have not just a general philosophical background — even a very good background — but additionally some familiarity with a few specific books. Okay, then what shall we read, and in what order?
Of course, the more philosophical background we bring to the table, particularly of Nietzsche but also of Plato and Strauss, all the better! I particularly want also to recommend Lampert's grand overview, Nietzsche and Modern Times: A Study of Bacon, Descartes, and Nietzsche.
Let's take a couple of glances into Lampert's exposition.
The most slippery concept in Leo Strauss and Nietzsche is platonizing, or to platonize. We don't mean here the sense of accepting Plato's opinions or explanations, or of dramatic writing in Plato's manner, although both of these contribute. More precisely, it is the art of beautification, of making beautiful in the Platonic manner.
When we further consider to what greater ends Plato makes his explanations beautiful and enticing, we approach the heart of our philosophers' mystery. What does Plato really believe, did he adopt a guise for himself and philosophy, and to what aim does he write the way he does? How close were the understandings of Plato and Nietzsche, what was Nietzsche opposing when he wrote against Plato, and why does Nietzsche write the way he does? Does Nietzsche find it necessary to "platonize" in presenting his ideas? And finally, what does Leo Strauss teach us about Nietzsche's challenge to Plato, and how does Strauss himself react to this?
If from one angle we consider Leo Strauss and Nietzsche as a work of literary criticism, we may see the meaning and extent of Nietzsche's platonizing as the axis of Strauss' essay on Nietzsche, and hence necessarily the leitmotif that runs through Lampert's analysis here of Plato, Nietzsche, and Strauss.
Follow Ariadne's thread in the word platonize or platonizing as you read the book.
Let us not presume that the most profound questions are approached without humor, in Nietzsche or Strauss or Lampert. As example, a revealing joke within the challenge of a new new track for philosophy:
So a Homeric joke slips into considerations of a lofty goal and a mighty challenge. But to see the world-shaping potential of a new track in awesome perspective, we also should delve into Lampert's fuller exposition in Nietzsche's Task.
The paragraph-by-paragraph close reading of Strauss' essay comprises about half of Lampert's book. After the close analysis, we proceed into the uplands of Lampert's three commanding chapters in which he illumines all this harvest under one sky as it were, our Earthly sky. One element of Lampert's exposition of Nietzsche which may surprise those who haven't yet read Lampert's books is the importance of nature in Nietzsche's philosophy. The chapters:
We could say more, about timeless topics: the esoteric history of philosophy; philosophy's relation to science and nature as well as to natural and revealed religion; the nobility of nature. But for all this we really should read Laurence Lampert's excellent books directly. As with Nietzsche, Lampert endeavors to place Straussian interpretation, and concomitantly the interpretation of Strauss himself, on a new but even more valuable track.
However, we approach the end of our review. I should emphasize that our foray with Lampert into philosophical detection, the exposition of esoteric guises, and the literary critique of platonizing, is not only fascinating but indeed of decisive importance in the historical present in which we all must live:
But, yes, alas: our review must needs conclude at last, and for all the rest point you toward Lampert's noble book.
Leo Strauss and Nietzsche is a very rich book, not simply scholarly but suffused and overflowing with richness that Lampert so carefully illumines and passes on to us: Dionysian vintners — Socrates, Plato, Friedrich Nietzsche, Leo Strauss, and others — wrestling with fruitful ideas that nourish our lives today as intoxicatingly as they did those of Socrates' fellow-citizens of Athens. Laurence Lampert's clarity conveys to us a beautiful joy of living ideas.
© 2010 Robert Wilfred Franson