Irony, Humility, and the Community of the Question: Leo Strauss on Platonic Irony and Being Literary

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One of the things I love about the work of Leo Strauss is his suggestion that we read philosophers or religious thinkers like Plato or Maimonides as one would read a good novel.  One of Strauss’s most important essays is entitled the “Literary Character of The Guide to the Perplexed.”     And the core of his literary method is to make very close readings of the text so as to listen for contradictions and allusions to something other than what is said on the surface.  In other words, he looks for the esoteric by way of paying close attention to the exoteric aspects of the texts.  To be sure, the cracks on the surface always suggests deeper meanings.  And when these deeper meanings compete with the philosophical or religious meanings of the text, the reader is forced to consider which meaning is more important for the author.   Strauss, in truth, believes that true intelligence is to be found in a text that prompts the reader to ask the right questions.   He claims that the person who responds to these prompts in the text becomes a part of a “community.”    And for Strauss the literary device that prompts the most intelligent questions and fosters community is irony.  His reading of irony, to be sure, has us pay close attention to not just what irony is but what it does.  And in doing so, it also makes us play closer attention to his own text with all of its ironies and allusions.  By exposing us to such ironies, he exposes us to a world of rich textual and intellectual possibilities.

A text that demonstrates Strauss’s approach to irony is his essay “On Plato’s Republic,” which appears in his book The City of Man.  At the outset of the essay, Strauss plays the ironist by playing out the question of how one should read Plato.  First he makes a claim, then he negates it; but after doing this, he brings up the claim again, and negates it once again. This process does much to put our assumptions about Plato into question:

Whereas reading the Politics we hear Aristotle all the time, in reading the Republic we hear Plato never.  In none of his dialogues does Plato ever say anything. Hence, we cannot know from them what Plato thought…But this is a silly remark: everyone knows that Plato speaks through the mouth..of his Socrates, his Eleatic stranger, his Timaeus, and his Athenian stranger….But why does he use a variety of spokesmen? He does not tell us; no one knows the reason. (50)

After saying all this, Strauss plays on the reality of how he sounds in front of other scholars and he simply gives up.   He acts as if it makes sense to accept the assumption that Socrates is Plato’s spokesperson when we can clearly see that he is in conflict with this.  And this comes out in the sentence following his decision to conform:

We do not wish to appear more ignorant than every child and shall therefore repeat with childlike docility that the spokesperson for Plato is Socrates.  But it is one of Socrates’ peculiarities that he was the master of irony.  (50)

This “but” changes everything since it suggests that whatever Socrates says is not what appears to be.  So to with our reading of Plato: perhaps Socrates is teaching us is that although he appears to be Plato’s spokesman he’s really not.  Perhaps, Strauss muses, Plato didn’t have “a teaching” and never really “asserted anything”?   But, following this, he says that this can’t be the case.  It is “absurd” to think this.

However, the question lingers even after he states this.

The next paragraph, hinting at this lingering question, is all about irony.  Strauss defines it immediately: “Irony is a kind of dissimulation, or untruthfulness.  Aristotle therefore treats the habit of irony primarily as a vice”(51).  But Strauss doesn’t think that Aristotle is right:

Yet irony is the dissembling, not of evil actions or of vices, but rather of good actions or of virtues; the ironic man, in opposition to the boaster, understates his worth.  If irony is a vice, it is a graceful vice.  Properly used, it is not a vice at all.  (51)

Strauss’s qualification of Aristotle is telling.  It suggests that irony is a neutral term and that it has a “proper” use.   Citing Aristotle against Aristotle,  Strauss argues that “irony is…the noble dissimulation of one’s worth, one’s superiority”(51).  In other words, humility and irony do not contradict each other; in fact, they aid each other.

Strauss goes so far as to equate wisdom with irony and to argue that “it is humanity peculiar to the superior man”(51).  Moreover, irony is selective.  It speaks “differently to different kinds of people”(51).  And, at its best, it evokes questions rather than answers.  However, not everyone is prompted by this or that irony to ask questions; hence, it speaks differently to different people.

For this reason, Strauss suggests that we read Plato’s dialogues not in terms of their philosophical content, alone; rather, one should also read them in terms of who was being spoken to and who was not being spoken to in this or that irony:

One must postpone one’s concern with the most serious questions (the philosophical questions) in order to become engrossed in the study of merely a literary question.  (52)

And by doing this, we realize that there is a deep connection between what he calls the “literary question and the philosophical question”(52).  In other words, literature and philosophy can be brought together by way of the questions evoked by irony.

Strauss goes even further and argues that the “literary question, the question of presentation, is concerned with a kind of communication”(52).  And this communication, through irony, is a “means of living together.”  In other words, irony creates a kind of community of the question (to play on Derrida’s opening to his famous essay on Levinas, “Violence and Metaphysics”).

However, instead of taking this to the next level, Strauss keeps it within academia: “The study of the literary question is therefore an important part of the study of society”(52).  He goes on to argue that this is more than a simple literary question: it is a “quest for truth, a common quest, a quest taking place through communication.”  This suggests that literature and philosophy have a “common quest” for truth.  However Strauss redirects this by arguing that the “literary question properly understood is the question of the relation between society and philosophy.”

This redirection is telling since it suggests that by reading for irony in philosophy we can better address the “question of relation of society and philosophy.”   For Strauss, this implies that there is something about irony that is related to the question of community and truth.

What, in fact, is the true kind of community?

Strauss’s reading of irony suggests that by reading for irony and communicating this irony to others we create a kind of ironic community.  Although he doesn’t use these terms his work suggests a community of the question which is based on a “common quest for truth.”  Moreover, as we saw above, if done “properly,” this community will evince a kind of humility instead of a kind of a snarky kind of arrogance.

What I love about this meditation is the fact that it gives great weight to being a close reader of the text.  To be sure, Strauss gives the act of literary criticism vis-à-vis the religious or philosophical text the highest value possible since it is, for him, the basis of creating a community of the question based on the “common quest for truth.”

I think many of my colleagues and readers should take this lesson to heart since I have never seen a greater vindication of irony and its meaning in any text I have read.  (However, if I am missing something, please do let me know.)   And this bodes well for Schlemiel Theory since the readers of the schlemiel will understand that the ironies of this comic character also seem to be going in the same direction.  To be sure, we don’t read novels, stories, and poems on the schlemiel – with all of their ironies -because they are funny; we read them because we are in search of truth and we are looking to create a community of the question.

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