Alex Priou was gracious enough to give us a look into his reading, thinking, and scholarship in his February 1st "Things Read and Written." He's pondering a problem with multiple layers, that of Leo Strauss interpreting the philosopher Farabi's interpretation of Plato. There's a lot at stake in his remarks—he touches, for example, on ways of reading, or what it means to write about philosophy and politics—but I appreciate his spelling out one reason why he thinks Strauss is reading Farabi. Priou: "The appeal of Farabi was in part—I emphasize in part—owed to Strauss’s search for an answer to the crisis of the West." More on this in my conclusion.
When I thought about expanding on Priou's thoughts, I realized it was important to introduce Farabi and the general problem of medieval philosophy. It's fair to say about Plato and Aristotle—the "ancients," if you will—that they're immersed in the question of how philosophy and political life relate. Can the two be reconciled? Socrates humiliates Athens while on trial for his life, denying he investigates natural phenomena so vigorously that he opens the door for free inquiry and science. But Socrates did spend time attempting to moderate a number of ambitious Athenians, and you'd be hard pressed to say his conception of philosophy had nothing to do with virtue or civics. Philosophy and politics may be in tension, but each points to the existence of the other, sometimes even clarifying phenomena within the other's scope. To this end: if you're wondering what a base, terrible, stupid thing like politics could possibly contribute to philosophy, consider the centrality of "What is justice?" in the Platonic corpus.
Medieval philosophy grapples with the ancients in a most peculiar way. I think most students imagine something like Aquinas synthesizing Christian theology with Aristotle. That ancient philosophy was "built from," or that some kind of progress was achieved. But look at how tough the questions I just outlined in the previous paragraph are. The tension between politics and philosophy does not go away because one has deduced that the "rational animal" would see the Ten Commandments as eminently reasonable. The problem of medieval philosophy is that the phenomena the ancients recognized as "political" disappeared. Sure, plenty in the Middle Ages speak of law, happiness, and virtue. It sounds political. Many even teach rhetoric from ancient sources! But the question of authority has been settled, and the regime is not up for debate. God has spoken through the prophets, moral truth has been revealed, and the philosopher ought to serve the theologian and submit to the divine will.
I have been speaking of the Christian world. Things are a bit different in the Islamic world, but the general problem is a sharp conflict between the monotheistic religions and philosophy. Because key features of political life cannot be debated, a grave threat to philosophy emerges. At least Socrates had Athens put him to death as a philosopher! (If you consider the literal charges alone, not quite, but still.) The term "heathen" does not acknowledge that humans desire to learn and question at great cost for the betterment of the species. Rather, it marks one as disobedient and returns to its notion of divine order.
Now what gets tricky is that religious authorities were using the ancients—yes, the same ancients who teach that philosophy and politics depend on each other in some sense—to argue that theological doctrines were indeed rational. That one need not ever question the established ruler. Socrates speaks of his soul knowing all things before he was born, then returning after death to a realm where red is truly red. This sort of talk, apparently, was being used by those around Farabi to argue for the truth of religion. Here's Priou, quoting Strauss:
Farabi’s silence about the ideas and about the immortality of the soul shows certainly that he does not hesitate to deviate from the letter of Plato’s teaching if he considers that literal teaching erroneous. He may have believed that Plato himself considered the doctrines in question merely exoteric.
Farabi did not speak of the ideal forms, e.g. the notion that we recognize various couches in this life because our minds have an ideal form of a couch within. Nor did he speak of the "immortality of the soul." Strauss says this is because he thinks those "literal teaching[s] erroneous." Reading between the lines, we can say these teachings aren't just wrong but lead to wrongness compounded. Inasmuch as Plato himself used them, they were "exoteric," meant for a specific purpose but not meant to be declarations of the truth.
I hope these remarks so far will help you get more from Priou's "Things Read and Written." Below, I want to look at a brief excerpt from Farabi himself, one which I personally find exciting to reflect on.
Farabi, at the opening of The Philosophy of Aristotle: "Aristotle sees the perfection of man as Plato sees it and more." I'm in awe of this sentence. How can one dare to link "perfection" with "more?" —Oh, one objects, that's not really being said. Plato had specific views on "perfection" and Aristotle had those views as well as other ideas. Transcending perfection is not an issue here. My response: We're still talking about perfection! The views themselves are filled with superlatives.—
So let's get slightly more technical. What were Plato's views on "the perfection of man?" Many things could qualify, so I'll start by pulling a random thread. Plato as dramatist showed everyone in their best light. Thrasymachus, a sophist who taught how to rile up crowds, is unforgettable; Gorgias in the eponymous dialogue demonstrates so much more sophistication than his extant work. Did Plato think the perfection of man primarily a poetic matter? Not quite. There may not be an ideal form of justice, but some people are more just than others. That seems to be his understanding of Socrates, who, by breathing life into Aristotle's "all men by nature desire to know," dramatically demonstrated the injustice underlying conventionality itself. Perfection is very real—it is possible to rejoice in inquiry and knowledge—and it is a delicate matter all the same.
Somehow, Aristotle adds "more" to this. He's got detailed descriptions of virtues, pointing to a "contemplative" end that may or may not be the philosophic life. He gives an account of the soul where it is the origin of motion and the seat of knowledge, and the tension cannot be reconciled. But perhaps Farabi means to speak of his Politics, which presents political life as an evolved phenomenon, instead of illustrating a fevered city. Maybe humans are made more perfect by how they organize socially and govern themselves.
There's so much more to consider, but Farabi wants us to focus on a particular problem:
Aristotle sees the perfection of man as Plato sees it and more. However, because man's perfection is not self-evident or easy to explain by a demonstration leading to certainty, he saw fit to start from a position anterior to that from which Plato had started.
We are told "man's perfection is not self-evident," which on paper sounds true, but in practice is difficult to reconcile with our experiences of heroes and movies. Farabi also says such perfection cannot easily be explained "by a demonstration leading to certainty." Again, reading his words, I nod in agreement. In this life, however, I have plenty of demonstrations for what so-and-so could have done better. If they only listened to me, they would be perfect.
The "position anterior" to Plato resembles thinking of humanity as "political animals" over against Platonic ideal forms. Instead of using "pure" reason to ground perfection—"self-evident" truth, say, or a "demonstration leading to certainty"—Aristotle introduces a messier but perhaps more realistic way of reasoning. Perhaps. How "pure" Platonic reasoning was to begin with is an open question.
Why read Farabi? This is just the opening of one of his works, and it is as thorough as one can get in terms of weighing ideas and their consequences. This is a philosopher's philosopher at work, and that he's working in an Islamic tradition and seeing what we call the "West" in a fullness few can match should give xenophobes and other bigots pause. However, as mentioned above, Strauss is interested in the "crisis of the West." His interest is much more serious than many others, though I have my reservations. Below: what sort of insight can Farabi give us into the "crisis of the West?"
Priou presents the problem as he believes Strauss conceives it. In what follows, I will sound critical, but I am not critical of Alex or his project. I'm grateful that he shared his thoughts, and I merely want to issue a warning to some who might believe that they have Strauss' answer to "the crisis of the West" and think it prescriptive for our ills. Here's Priou, giving an excellent summary of what seems to be Strauss' own reasoning about the history of philosophy:
The appeal of Farabi was in part—I emphasize in part—owed to Strauss’s search for an answer to the crisis of the West. It showed that pre-modern thought could withstand the modern critique of the ideal as imaginary, initiated by Machiavelli but stated most recently and forcefully by Nietzsche. If so, then the nihilism of his contemporaries would be a symptom not of the failings of the tradition in toto but of modernity in particular.
For Strauss, the "moderns" rejected both ancient and medieval thought as no practical regime had emerged from either. Machiavelli spoke of the realities of power—e.g. a ruler should strive to be feared, but not hated—as opposed to Plato's "philosopher-king." "The Prince" demonstrates the reasoning behind the US Constitution. An emphasis on property rights in order to limit a ruler's power comes directly from chapter 17. This sounds reasonable enough, but considerations like it led to many thinkers rejecting ancient and medieval thought wholesale, not even trying to seriously address things like virtue, nobility, or the intricacies of belief. Those things sound corny to us, but that's our loss. Socrates was able to moderate Athenians, steer some away from demagoguery, because he could appeal to honor. At this moment in US history, appealing to honor is outright laughable.
That having been said, what exactly is the "crisis of the West?" Most Straussians would say it is historicism, or in other words, an inability to read the tradition as a dialogue about natural right. Gone is the question "What is justice?", as it has been replaced by some kind of relativism making it impossible for people to defend the tradition or the benefits of the tradition. Obviously, I have my issues with this framework, and Farabi's engagement of Plato and Aristotle, ironically enough, points to the larger problem. It isn't correct to characterize him as looking for what is "naturally right" in any sense bounded by tradition. He's thinking through his time and what's pertinent to him—at times, he's working through a tradition that is being used against his best instincts—and yes, he comes to some conclusions about justice in the abstract. His endgame, though, is perhaps more radical than anything we have today. Consider the title of Joshua Parens' book about Farabi: "An Islamic Philosophy of Virtuous Religions." Is that idea even conceivable in today's America? The most radical notion for many I know is the notion there are other religions which have a share of the truth and are deserving of respect.
The endgame is a product of a very complicated process. We've outlined how it works above. Plato wrote about the conflict between politics and philosophy as he saw it. The problem is timeless, but the specifics of the conflict and its dramatization are not. When Farabi goes to Plato for insight, he must use what he can work with even though he is an exceptionally close-reader. Even a perfect understanding of the works he engages would not square with his own experience. It's a mistake to say Farabi can only have the conventional views of his time, but it is also a mistake to say that in approaching a permanent question his solution has nothing to do with the world he confronts. The problem of "natural right" is that it can be reductive rhetoric, leading us away from what a philosopher personally faces in order to create a tradition which holds all the answers and can do no wrong. Descartes writes angrily about the "schoolmen" and how they've wasted years of his life. I understand his anger a lot more nowadays.