Piety, Universality, and History: Leo Strauss on Thucydides

By Kleinhaus, Emil A. | Humanitas, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Piety, Universality, and History: Leo Strauss on Thucydides


Kleinhaus, Emil A., Humanitas


Having compiled his history of the Peloponnesian War before "the change in thought that was effected by Socrates" occurred, Thucydides occupies no obvious place in Leo Strauss's unique exposition of the history of political ideas. (1) Nevertheless, Strauss made three substantial statements about Thucydides. The first statement, a published lecture, predictably demotes Thucydides to the subordinate status of a pre-Socratic. (2) But Strauss's more substantial statement on Thucydides, the concluding essay of The City and Man, questions the lecture and indicates that Plato and Thucydides "may supplement one another." (3) The essay ultimately concludes not only that Thucydides' work is compatible with Plato's and Aristotle's but that "the quest for the 'common sense' understanding of political things which led us first to Aristotle's Politics leads us eventually to Thucydides' War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians." (4) Strauss, subverting the conventional pecking order, thus painted Thucydides not as a mere predecessor to Plato and Aristotle but as a political philosopher in his own right whose History marked the culmination rather than the origin of classical political thought. In light of this judgment, it is not surprising that Strauss's last published essay, "Preliminary Observations on the Gods in Thucydides' Work," consisted of an enigmatic piece meant simply to "modify some observations in the Thucydides-chapter of The City and Man." (5)

Strauss's mounting appreciation for Thucydides rested on his conviction that Thucydides addressed two fundamental problems: the problem of Athens and Jerusalem and the problem of history. Strauss himself is often painted as unfriendly to religion and unambiguously hostile to a historical view of philosophy. But a close reading of Strauss's writings on Thucydides severely complicates this picture. To reach this conclusion, a good deal of work is needed. In regard to Athens and Jerusalem, Strauss's statements appear contradictory on their face. In his lecture Strauss emphasized "the antagonism between Athens and Jerusalem" and concluded that "political history is of Greek, not of Hebrew, origin." (6) But Strauss enigmatically ended his long essay on the Greek historian as follows: "only by beginning at this point will we be open to the full impact of the all-important question which is coeval with philosophy although the philosophers do not frequently pronounce it--the question quid sit deus." Strauss is somewh at more explicit though still maddeningly vague about Thucydides' relevance to the problem of history. Strauss looks back to Thucydides to find a pre-modem historical approach that can help navigate around the problems that the new history, or historicism, has created. According to Strauss, since "history has become a problem for us," we must try to understand "what is the precise character of that Greek wisdom which issues in political history." (7)

By explicating Strauss's original though imperfect reading of Thucydides, according to which the History should be read as a paean to the radically distinct forms of moderation that manifested themselves in Athens and Sparta, the essay will show how Strauss brought Thucydides into a larger discourse about both history and religion. In doing so it will attempt to reconcile the lecture and the essay while also incorporating into the analysis the article on the gods in Thucydides. The essay will suggest that Strauss's reading of Thucydides fits neatly into the City and Man, which unveils a uniform classical tradition of political philosophy at the heart of which is a sober recognition of the limits of politics and at the height of which is Thucydides. This Thucydides-centered interpretation of the City and Man, moreover, undermines Strauss's image as an uncompromising natural rights advocate. Using the startling Preface to the City and Man as a guidepost, the essay will hypothesize instead that, following Plato, Strauss conscientiously employed "political speech" to advance principles he considered prudent, principles such as the power of ideas in the political arena and the existence of just gods. …

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Piety, Universality, and History: Leo Strauss on Thucydides
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