This essay undertakes a close analysis of Leo Strauss’s remarkable but undertreated Leo Strauss on Plato’s “Symposium,” reading it as opening a privileged purview of his own (and his students’) wider understandings of philosophy, poetry, and politics. The essay begins by drawing out Strauss’s three framing justifications for his manner of reading the Symposium as a document in the “ancient quarrel” of philosophy and poetry concerning which of the two should rightly shape the culture and ethical ideals of the Greeks (part 1). Then, following the course of Plato’s Symposium, the essay ascends through Strauss’s readings of the first five speeches in Plato’s dialogue (part 2) toward the highlight of Strauss’s reading, namely, his three remarkable sessions on Socrates’s speech. Part 3 analyses Strauss’s reading of this speech up to its climax, which Strauss argues involves the philosophical “demotion of poetry”: a criticism of poets as motivated by the Eros of fame and of tragic poetry as at its best creating captivating images of gods and heroes which reflect their creators’ self-love and patriotic love of “one’s own,” as against any transpolitical truth. Part 4 then looks at Strauss’s unusual reading of the culmination of Socrates’s great speech (Diotima on the “higher mysteries”) alongside Alkibiades’s speech in the Symposium as representing Plato’s “poetic presentation of philosophy.” The essay becomes more critical as it proceeds. Strauss’s reading of the Symposium, like his reading of the Republic, is remarkable for its own “demotion of metaphysics” in Plato, and in my concluding remarks, I will question this status, or disappearance, of metaphysics in Strauss’s Platonism. Strauss’s reading of the Symposium, like his wider oeuvre, aims at a defense of philosophy as meaningfully different from and superior to poetry. Yet he is unable to give coherence to the central idea of the Good (versus the Beautiful) in Platonic thought, which he agrees with other commentators is decisive for Plato’s attempt to differentiate philosophical inquiry from poetic creation. So readers of On Plato’s “Symposium” can be left wondering about how Strauss can metaphilosophically ground his elevated claims on behalf of philosophy versus the poets and to what extent his own work remains a decisively rhetorical or poetic presentation of philosophy.
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Matthew Sharpe; The Poetic Presentation of Philosophy: Leo Strauss on Plato’s “Symposium”. Poetics Today 1 December 2013; 34 (4): 563–603. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/03335372-2389596
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