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 believe that it is not too much to say that Strauss's essay is the most comprehensive and profound study ever published on Nietzsche. It attains this rank because
— it places Nietzsche in the proper, most exalted company, the company of one, the company of Plato;
— it demonstrates that the two essential issues in Nietzsche's thought are the will to power and eternal return, and shows how these two issues are logically related as the fundamental fact and the highest value;
— it shows the place of nature in Nietzsche's teaching, nature understood as historical and including human spiritual history;
— it shows just who the philosopher is in Nietzsche's view and just what role the philosopher has played in our history;
— and it shows how the philosopher Nietzsche plays that role in the present, solving the highest, the most difficult problem bequeathed to us by our past.
All this in seventeen pages? Strenuous and dense, Strauss's little essay is so controlled in its density that every paragraph buds and flowers into profuse abundance when questioned about its implications and consequences. Or so it has seemed to me. To me it seems a paradigm of the art of writing rediscovered by Strauss himself, the art suggested by Plato's Socrates through his warnings on the dangers of writing in the Phaedrus.
Still, Strauss's essay has a face only a scholar could love. Its profundity and astringent beauty become visible only as the rewards of toil to which that deceptively plain face beckons the reader.
I suggested above that Leo Strauss and Nietzsche involves a historico-philosophical analysis of work by several minds. These are:
- Friedrich Nietzsche
- Leo Strauss
- Laurence Lampert
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.
Prerequisites for Lampert on Plato & Strauss & Nietzsche?
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?
- First, the central subject, Friedrich Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future (1886). Surely one of the most important books ever written, and a scintillating delight to read.
- Next, Laurence Lampert's book-length commentary, Nietzsche's Task: An Interpretation of Beyond Good and Evil. A very fine and important study: please see the review at Troynovant.
- The Introduction and Chapter One of Lampert's Leo Strauss and Nietzsche, "Strauss's Study of Nietzsche", to focus our orientation.
- Leo Strauss' essay, "Note on the Plan of Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil". This is a centerpiece of Strauss' collection, Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy. It is included as an appendix in Leo Strauss and Nietzsche, with Lampert's addition of marginal paragraph numbers (there are only 38 paragraphs!), keyed to marginal numbers in his own text, which make it easy for us to move back and forth.
- The remainder of Leo Strauss and Nietzsche: taking our time, referring occasionally to the essay, reading closely.
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.
Socrates as a Chimera, and the new track
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:
"As for rationalist morality": Strauss now turns from nature as the foundation of morals to the other foundation presupposed by the philosophers, reason. At issue is Nietzsche's view of Socrates and Plato, founders of the rationalist tradition in morals. ... One question will become central, even urgent: could Nietzsche be right in realigning philosophy against "the morality of the human herd"? Could the Nietzschean turn in morals be in accord with reason?
Strauss uses [Beyond Good and Evil's] aphorisms 190 and 191 to advance the contest between Nietzsche and Plato, forcing it to focus on a Nietzschean joke about the Platonic Socrates. How could the patrician Plato have taken over the Socratic teaching, "for which," Nietzsche says, "he was really too noble"? The teaching of the Platonic Socrates was utilitarian, identifying the good with the useful and pleasant. "The Platonic Socrates is a monstrosity," a Homeric monster as Nietzsche puts it, setting his joke in a line of Homeric Greek and substituting his nouns for Homer's (Iliad 6.181): in front Plato in back Plato and in the middle Chimera. Homer's line ran: in front a lion in back a snake and in the middle a she-goat — the unnatural monster Chimera. Plato, Nietzsche's little joke suggests, sheltered that Homeric monster Socrates within a civil front and back provided by the noble Plato himself. ...
... to unriddle the Platonic Socrates is to win power over Plato, to surpass him in strength and power. But Plato's strength and power was such that it forced all philosophers and theologians after him onto the same track ([BGE] aphorism 191). To surpass Plato is to put all philosophers and theologians of the future on a new track.
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.
Toward the Nietzschean Enlightenment
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:
In conclusion: Dionysian vintners
- "Nietzsche's Place in the History of Platonic Political Philosophy" presents Nietzsche in turn as antimodern, as (perhaps also surprising) anticlassical, and as philosopher of the future. Lampert summarizes how
Nietzsche makes a whole new history of philosophy possible, and Strauss makes a substantial contribution to that new history.
Finally in this chapter Lampert discusses "Nietzsche and rule of philosophy over religion":
With Nietzsche, philosophy sheds its ascetic mask and comes forth — How? Unmasked? "Everything profound loves masks" (BGE, 40), which means in part that everything profound is unavoidably masked because it cannot help being taken superficially and being understood as something other than it is.
Lampert explains what this must mean for the Nietzschean philosophy of the future, a fascinating exposition.
- "Strauss's Place in the History of Platonic Political Philosophy", which looks at Strauss' intent, and his working back from the modern Enlightenment through the Medieval Enlightenment to the Platonic Enlightenment and Platonic political philosophy. There is a very interesting discussion of Socrates and Thrasymachus in the Republic, and how this bears on platonizing and on Nietzsche.
- "The Nietzschean Enlightenment", where we again see one of the charms of Lampert's writing, his use of Wallace Stevens' poetry. Nietzsche's "politics of Enlightenment" in past, present, and future wraps up the book resoundingly and beautifully.
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:
The drift of [Strauss'] argument is clear (though it will be made still clearer in the climactic paragraph 35): the present moral moment requires that those of the highest spirituality and the greatest reason act on behalf of human nature for the human future. Translated into Nietzsche's language, this says that philosophy no longer has the luxury of a prudent compromise with stupidity; philosophy may no longer make concessions to the natural morality of the large majority, What is needed is a new politics for philosophy that self-consciously opposes the Platonic compromise because it now stands within the ultimate consequences of that compromise and knows where it stands. ...
Strauss does not resist the temptation to say that the new philosophers are to act to the highest degree according to nature and to the highest degree according to reason: his whole discussion on nature and reason in morals comes to this affirmative conclusion. But one cannot yet say that Strauss simply assents to this anti-Platonic view ....
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.