You are on page 1of 21

The Motion of War and History – Leo Strauss on Thucydides and the ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’

THE MOTION OF WAR AND HISTORY: LEO STRAUSS ON THUCYDIDES AND THE
‘HISTORY OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR

Kristiaan Rodrigo Knoester


MA Ideëngeschiedenis en Interpretatie, 2007-08
dr. Jacques Bos
Universtiteit van Amsterdam
kristiaanux@hotmail.com

Abstract: In this essay, I will attempt to give shape to an important aspect of classical Greek teaching, both
for historians and philosophers, by looking at Leo Strauss’s own particular approach to ancient thought.
In particular, I will discuss his interpretation of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War – which in
light of his readings would seem to inaugurate what would culminate in the political philosophy of
Socrates (as revealed in the Platonic dialogues). Before that, however, I will comment on both the notion
of historicity and its relation to philosophy according to Strauss. At the end of the paper, I will reevaluate
these notions in relation to Strauss’s reading of Thucydides.

***

“Change, we shall find, except in something evil, is extremely dangerous. This is true of seasons and winds, the
regimen of the body and the character of the soul – in short, of everything without exception…. [Legislators] don’t
appreciate that if children introduce novelties into their games, they’ll inevitably turn out to be quite different people
from the previous generation; being different, they’ll demand a different kind of life, and that will then make them
want new institutions and laws. The next stage is what we described as the biggest evil that can affect a state – but
not a single legislator takes fright at the prospect.”
— The Athenian Stanger, in Plato’s Laws, 797-798.

Leo Strauss once explained – in a response to George Sabine concerning his esoteric premise1 – that
“if one does not take seriously the intention of the great thinkers, namely, the intention to know the
truth about the whole, one cannot understand them; but historicism is based on the premise that this
intention is unreasonable because it is simply impossible to know the truth about the whole.”2 Such a
statement, Strauss argues, does not presuppose that the philosopher was always fully aware of all the
premises and possible results surrounding his statements. Instead, it was meant to convey to the
historian that he “must proceed on the supposition that the great thinkers understood better what they

1
Seth Benardete – Platonic scholar and close friend of Strauss’s – touched upon the central feature of Strauss’s teaching when he drew
attention to what he calls Strauss’s “golden sentence”: “The problem inherent in the surface of things, and only in the surface of things,
is the heart of things.” This perspective of the ‘esoteric tradition,’ beginning with Plato, was the essential lesson he drew form reading
Alfarabi’s works on Plato. However, there remains much debate with regards to the appraisal of Strauss’s ‘esoteric’ doctrine as a
heuristic device. (Cf. Steven B. Smith, Reading Leo Strauss, 2006: p. 117.)
2
Strauss, What is Political Philosophy?, 1988: p. 227.
1
The Motion of War and History – Leo Strauss on Thucydides and the ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’

thought than the historian who is not likely to be a great thinker.”3 With regards to his conception of
truth, he admits that it is anti-positivist insofar positivism “is blind to the fundamental problems,”
meaning that “the positivist as positivist cannot be a historian of philosophy.” The basis of this
premise is related to his view that the history of philosophy cannot be divorced from fundamental
philosophical claims and their related problems. For this reason, “a man who happens to be a
positivist can become a historian of philosophy only to the extent to which he develops the capacity
for questioning positivism.”4 Alternatively, taking seriously the intention of the great thinkers of the
past “to know the truth about the whole” requires a descent from modern historicism to the pre-
scientific view of the classical polis. To understand the necessity of this descent, we need to
understand Strauss’s notion of the crisis of modernity; a crisis, Strauss argued, that was largely
shaped by the radical historicity that had become entrenched in philosophy and the social sciences – a
process which itself also culminated in the philosophy of Heidegger and the political aesthetics of the
Nazi movement. In this paper we will look at Strauss’s particular approach to Thucydides’ History of
the Peloponnesian War, though before we can continue with that investigation we may need to look
first at Strauss’s conception of history and its’ relation to philosophy.

Leo Strauss defines the discovery of history – the coming-to-be of an historical awareness – as the
nexus upon which we are to recognize the crisis of Western civilization. By this we are to understand
the notion of modernity and its loss of faith in the idea of progress. For modern man, according to
Strauss, progress has become a change that couples intellectual progress (accumulation of
knowledge) with social advancement, while doing away with the demand for any ultimate goal or
end, be it moral or teleological. Arthur Lovejoy, for example, noted how the ‘chain of scientific
development’ of the new science and philosophy had replaced its traditional forerunners, including
the (Platonic) ‘Chain of Being,’ through a process of temporalization, i.e. historicization. Strauss, on
the other hand, explains this in terms of a further descent from the original Greek notion of nature.
An outcome of this, Strauss continues, was that “the notion of a rational morality, the heritage of
Greek philosophy, has…lost its standing completely; all choices are, it is argued, ultimately
nonrational or irrational.”5 But it is also in this tension that the dichotomy of the Bible and Greek
philosophy nevertheless remained, albeit hidden and forgotten.

The basis for this duality was set in antiquity. In an introduction to History of Political Philosophy,
Strauss mentions the distinction Aristotle made between those “who discourse on the gods” and
3
Idem., p. 228.
4
Idem., p. 229.
5
Strauss, ‘Progress or Return?’, in Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity, 1997: p. 100.
2
The Motion of War and History – Leo Strauss on Thucydides and the ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’

“those who discourse on nature”, the latter being what philosophers from the beginning had
concentrated on. Placing the concept of ‘nature’ in this context is meant to reveal just how
foundational the question – what is nature? – in fact is. So Strauss goes on to explain that the word
nature was rarely used before its adoption by philosophy. Homer, for example, mentions ‘nature’ in
the Odyssey only once. There it refers to the character of a thing, as is evident in Homer’s portrayal
of how the god Hermes helped Odysseus to escape from the island of the sorceress-goddess Circe. In
this episode of the Odyssey, brave Odysseus finds himself in danger of being turned into swine, as
had been the fate of his comrades. But Hermes was able to protect Odysseus from Circe’s witchcraft;
he “drew a herb from the earth and showed [Odysseus] its nature. Black at the root it was, like milk
its blossom; and the gods call it moly. Hard is it to dig for mortal men, but the gods can do anything.”

Strauss elaborates the Greek conception of omnipotence presented in this account in Progress or
Return? As he points out: We are told that the gods can do everything – i.e. they are omnipotent – so
consequently they know the nature of all things. But these things are completely independent of the
gods, i.e. they have separate natures. Accordingly, the gods can only use them by first knowing their
particular natures. Such independence, and the requirement of knowledge before things can be used
properly, thereby reduces the omnipotence of the gods. And all this in turn, according to Strauss,
helps clarify, or is reflected in, the character of Greek philosophy, whose fundamental teaching is
concerned with the ‘eternity of the cosmos or chaos.’ This is evident, for example, in its scheme of
causality, where above any personal being “we find in one form or other an impersonal necessity.”6
Contrast this with the Bible, which teaches the creation out of nothing (first cause) by an omnipotent
God, but likewise depicts ‘Him’ in anthropocentric terms (as ‘a person’). This, Strauss hastens to add,
has to do with the fact that the Bible must view ‘Him’ as a ‘personal God’ – i.e. in terms of God’s
concern with man in the absolute sense.7 Likewise, this affects man’s experience in the world,
particularly in reference to ‘the Fall.’ We learn, therefore, that in the Hebrew Bible, before the
discovery of nature, it was ‘way’ or ‘custom’ that came closest to such a meaning. Thereafter we see
a bifurcation of ‘way’ or ‘custom’ resulting in nature (physis, in the Greek sense) on the one hand and
‘convention’ or ‘law’ (nomos) on the other.8 Strauss gives as an example the view that refers to the
ability to speak as something natural, while the particular languages are seen as the result of
convention.

Herein lies a fundamental distinction between Greek philosophy and the Bible: Greek thought (myth)
developed the notion that there is such a thing as the nature of a thing, and this would become

6
Idem., p. 110.
7
Cf. Moses Maimonides, ‘Guide for the Perplexed’, Ch. I.
8
Cf., David Boucher, Political Theories of International Relations, 1998: p. 58.
3
The Motion of War and History – Leo Strauss on Thucydides and the ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’

elaborated in Greek philosophy proper as a quest for principles, ‘for the beginnings, for the first
things… in the light of the idea of nature.’9 The biblical notions of ‘custom’ or ‘way’, on the other
hand, would by necessity allude to the existence of a ‘right way’. In this manner what is ‘good’ is
associated with ‘ancestral’ tradition, by virtue of ancestors to whom was revealed the ‘right way’ by
God. Divine law – theos nomos – is the ‘right way’, and is not open to dispute. Greek philosophy,
Strauss tells us, also begins with divine law, but in the ‘traditional sense of the term (where it is a
code traced to a personal god)’, which eventually is

replaced by a natural order which may even be called, as it was later to be called, a natural
law—or at any rate, to use a wider term, a natural morality. So the divine law, in the real and
strict sense of the term, is only the starting point, the absolutely essential starting point, for
Greek philosophy, but it is abandoned in the process. And if it is accepted by Greek
philosophy, it is accepted only politically, meaning, for the education of the many, and not as
something which stands independently.10

The Bible is able to claim obedience to the divine law because it has been granted by a personal God,
whose omnipotence and essence is unknowable and therefore undisputable (“I shall be What I shall
be”). And it is by virtue of a covenant that man is forced to believe – through trust and faith – in His
presence.

Leo Strauss ultimately argues that it is on the basis of this duality that political philosophy, in the
Socratic sense, became foundational. The problem of human knowledge is reflected in this
antagonism: the Bible grants that man is capable of understanding only by virtue of God, and in his
service, while philosophy places the pursuit of knowledge as a way of life in itself, unencumbered by
the urgency of obedience. Indeed, it was the pursuit of the forbidden knowledge – knowledge of good
and evil – that brought about the Fall in the first place, and why the ‘good life’ is placed in the
context of redemption through obedience. In terms of classical political philosophy, nature is
therefore prior to convention. Questions as to the nature of political things (e.g. law in terms of
justice) and the political community in general were framed in this context. So too investigations on
the nature of man.

Strauss considered Socrates the founder of this tradition. It was Socrates who felt the urgency of the
question regarding the conduct of one’s life. And it was Socrates who, in following this quest,

9
Strauss, Progress or Return?, in: 1997: 111.
10
Idem., p. 114.
4
The Motion of War and History – Leo Strauss on Thucydides and the ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’

acquired an understanding of the nature of philosophic passion or desire – i.e. eros11 – which in turn
helped him achieve some clarity on the right way of life. It was in this manner that he experienced
philosophy as a guide in search of knowledge, discovering in it a necessity that in itself constitutes an
essential understanding of the nature of man, but which in turn sheds light on the need to understand
the nature of the whole. All this therefore leads to the conclusion that such knowledge will always
remain obscure. But far from discouraging one from such a pursuit, it convinces the seeker that the
best way of life is one devoted to the quest for knowledge, i.e. philosophy. This conflict concerning
‘the decisive truth, the truth regarding the right way of life’, is what Strauss considers to be the
‘secret of the vitality of Western civilization’.12

Socrates lived this tension, but also its consequences. Although Socrates was accused of impiety, he
was pious to the extent that he did focus on examining divine or natural things, and because of this
was compelled to ascend from conventional law to nature in order to escape the arbitrariness of
opinion. Because he directed himself towards true knowledge, that is, towards the ‘ideas’ or ‘forms’,
he guided himself by investigating the character of things whose essence reflected these ‘ideas’ and
‘forms’. Being pious, he therefore concentrated on human things. Because the highest of these is the
human soul, and the human soul thrives in the best social circumstances, he devoted his talents to
investigating the nature of human society—the polis.

In Political Philosophy and History, Strauss distinguishes his position vis á vis Hegel by quoting an
excerpt from him where he elucidates the fundamental difference between modern and pre-modern
philosophy: “The manner of study in ancient times is distinct from that of modern times, in that the
former consisted in the veritable training and perfecting of the natural consciousness. Trying its
powers at each part of its life severally, and philosophizing about everything it came across, the
natural consciousness transformed itself into a universality of abstract understanding which was
active in every matter and in every respect. In modern times, however, the individual finds the
abstract form ready made.”13 Strauss attempts to justify the importance of pre-modern philosophy of
the ancients by ‘recollecting’ the essence of this ‘natural consciousness’ as it was experienced in the
classical polis, before its’ abstraction became our modern perspective. To do so, Strauss brings up the
question of the ‘political’ in relation to ‘philosophy’ before the descent of political philosophy, i.e.,
before philosophy ascended from the Platonic cave and into Nature – the abstract Notion representing
the phenomena of the natural consciousness. For this reason, political philosophy must become
historical, and also go back to the beginnings. Strauss wants us to see for ourselves how ‘the

11
Idem., p. 122.
12
Idem., p. 114.
13
Taken from Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Mind, tr. J.B. Baille, 2nd ed., London, New York, 1931, 94; (modified by Strauss).
Quoted in: Strauss, 1988: 75.
5
The Motion of War and History – Leo Strauss on Thucydides and the ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’

ancients’ antedated the challenge of revelation in their inquiries on what the right life consists of, and
in their attempts to reconcile philosophy and the city. In doing so they were engaged directly with
political experience: to the phenomena that manifests itself before ‘the natural consciousness’. This
does not mean that Strauss was proposing the possibility of reliving such a ‘direct experience,’ he
was too much of a hermeneutic and [post] modernist (not to mention a careful reader of Nietzsche
and Heidegger, and almost certainly Hegel as well) to fall into that simplistic trap. Instead, he saw as
the essence of such an experience itself the essential problem of modernity. Or, in other words, it is
the problem of such an experience – i.e. its possibility and significance – that constitutes the
foundation of modern political philosophy.

So we must begin by recovering the political significance of nature (e.g. natural rights) buried
beneath the abstractions solidified by History. It is this that leads Strauss to the tension between
‘philosophy and the city’ – i.e. the will to self-criticism versus accepted opinions – in such matters as
justice, the good, and piety; questions that the pre-philosophic, pre-historical mindset considered
fundamental to any investigation by virtue of being inextricable from the end of the investigations
themselves. To do so, one need not look any further than Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian
War.

Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian wars has long been considered a classic text in
international relations. Even now, its continuing importance resides largely on its being seen as a
scientific and realistic analysis of what for many is the essence of power politics.14 He not only
chronicles the decisions, events, and consequences instigated on both sides, but also manages to
convey the difficulty of balancing intent with the way certain decisions, whether they are defensive
or offensive, will nevertheless be perceived, which depends on the nature and circumstances that
characterize the city and her individuals. One obvious lesson is therefore the understanding of how
easily certain behaviors can lead to unmanageable consequences on matters of security and military
build-up. So in this attempt at an objective – if not clinical – portrayal of not only the most important
characters, but the speeches they gave and the effect it had on their audience, Thucydides illustrates
the role that both individual and collective temperament played in this Greek drama. He carefully
depicts what he views as the most important factors at play, from individual psychologies to the state
systems themselves, and presents these attentively.15 His history ultimately helps us glimpse, in the

14
Boucher, 1998: p. 67.
15
Idem., pp. 68-9.
6
The Motion of War and History – Leo Strauss on Thucydides and the ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’

context of the Platonic dialogues, universal aspects of human behaviour through the prism of the
demands of empire, and more importantly, what is at stake when self-interest and ambition
undermine moderation and justice.16

More specifically, Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War is a narrative account of the
conflicts and the war that resulted from the tension between Sparta and Athens. In it he famously
explains that the final catalyst that led to military confrontation was Spartans’ fear “of the further
growth of Athenian power, seeing, as they did, that the greater part of Hellas was under the control of
Athens."17 But the Athenian empire had itself also, to a great extent, been shaped by fear: it was fear
of Persian dominance that lead it to join forces with other Greek states; it was fear of other Greek
states becoming dominant that lead it to capitalize on the military dominance it had accrued due to its
naval supremacy, and to further its interests through expansionism; and finally, it was fear that forced
it to maintain its strategic dominance by all means necessary. At the peak of its strength Athens had
become a full-fledged imperial power.

So Thucydides explains that it was primarily psychological factors – which in turn influenced
economic interests – that grounded the necessity of securing perceived interests. As Thucydides
explains it, it is a ‘Law of Nature’ that when a strong state is confronted with states that likewise seek
to be in a position of power, the stronger state will be compelled to dissuade the weaker states by all
means necessary from achieving a position equal to it. The logic is simple: because it would no
longer be able to control all the conditions necessary for securing its vital interests, such a scenario
would in fact place the stronger state in jeopardy, having then to deal with other states that, naturally,
are also primarily concerned with securing their own vital interests.18 So even in an alliance, the
stronger state will feel compelled to subdue dissent and revolt from neighbouring states if it feels that
vital interests are at stake, and even more so when an enemy is seeking to take advantage of the
situation.

But Thucydides’ account also isolates hubris, or more specifically, hybris (daring leading to
immoderation), along with eros (desire/love for beauty) as important factors guiding many of the
decisions that lead Athenians to act on behalf of their best interests – and their love of Athens – as
well as to act decisively in individual circumstances. Thucydides explains how it was under the
leadership of Pericles that Athens experienced its Golden age, though he also fostered Athenian

16
Cf., Boucher, 1998: p. 76.
17
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, I. 88
18
Boucher, 1998: 76. See also Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, I. 76, VI. 85.
7
The Motion of War and History – Leo Strauss on Thucydides and the ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’

democracy by populist means in order to retain the support of the poor, whose thetes (manual
labourers) were necessary for the naval vessels upon which its military supremacy relied (the
infantry, made up of hoplites, where by contrast mostly members of the middle-class). Not only did
he, in the years following the defeat of the Persians, awaken the patriotic spirit in Athenians,
channelling it in the service of imperial expansionism, but was directly involved in the beautification
of Athens – fostering the arts and education, and investing in public monuments such as the
Parthenon – meant to inspire and give shape to the special bond between Athens and her citizens. But
Pericles had also spoken of the importance of moderation, and the need to temper one’s desires. This
wisdom, however, was forgotten after his death, which is when Athens began to suffer a number of
challenges, both man-made (war) and natural (plague).

Three events help illustrate the interplay of nature, justice, and piety, which play such an important
role in Thucydides’ account. Because it is precisely the change that these notions underwent in the
wake of Thucydides that Strauss brings forth in his writings, it will be helpful to look at these in
some detail.

1) In the Mytilenian revolt (428-427 BC), the Mytilenians reacted against Athenian attempts to
forcefully subject them against their wishes. They claimed that this was a violation of their alliance,
and beseeched the Spartans for help: “Be the men, therefore, that the Hellenes think you and that our
fears require you to be” (3.14).19 Cleon in turn regarded this as an act of hostility against Athens,
whose imperial ambitions he felt were completely justified, being as they were the result of necessity.
In advocating for the punishment of all the Mytilenians, he downplayed the role of justice and
compassion by insisting that their enemies would have come to the same decision. His argument was
that sparing a wounded enemy would likely bring more ruin on all parties in the long run. (More on
this below)

2) The Melian dialogue (415 BC) was an important dialogue that preceded the reaction against
Melos, around the end of the Peace of Nicias, when the Athenians had decided to take over the island
of Melos. Until then, despite its status as a Spartan colony, Melos had remained neutral in light of
Athenian naval dominance. The Athenians, however, had made various attempts to sway the Melian
government to join their side. The context of this dialogue therefore demonstrates the only two
alternatives the Melians were left with: war or slavery. It took place behind closed doors – and thus
19
Quoted in: Boucher, 1998: 73.
8
The Motion of War and History – Leo Strauss on Thucydides and the ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’

away from the Athenian people who might otherwise have been deceived by the Melian ambassadors
– but in the presence of the Athenian army. It is this fact that the Athenians use as the starting point
of the debate. Strauss took notice of how the Athenians sought to establish a rule for the dialogue:
“The issue is not what is just but what is feasible—what the Athenians can do to the Melians and the
Melians can do to the Athenians; questions of right arise only when the power to compel is more or
less equal on both sides; if there is so great inequality as between Athens and Melos, the stronger
does what he can and the weaker yields.”20 Although the Athenians had assumed the Melian
ambassadors, “i.e. the leading men as distinguished from the people,”21 were knowledgeable of this
principle, this turns out to be a flawed evaluation. When the Melians pointed at the threat that other
neutral cities may pose if Melos’ neutrality was violated, the Athenians explained the difference
between mainland cities and island cities. But this argument was in fact an underhanded way of
bringing up the matter of right in contradistinction to interest. Still, the Athenians replied that they
had nothing to fear from neutral mainland cities, who themselves knew they did not pose any threat
to Athenian power, and in view of this that Athens would not feel compelled to subjugate them
unnecessarily. Island states, on the other hand, do pose a threat; they may choose to give up their
neutrality at any given moment and ally themselves with the enemies of Athens. The mere existence
of island states not under the absolute influence of Athens can be misinterpreted as a sign of
weakness, and is therefore against her interests.

In this segment of the dialogue Strauss notes that, when the Athenians accidentally spoke of
‘freedom’ in relation to the mainland cities, the Melians took up the issue as something that they
would defend at all costs. In this manner they expanded from the topic of interest to one about
nobility: to capitulate to power is a sure mark of cowardice. The Athenian’s rebuttal pointed out that
it is in fact a sign of moderation, a virtue characteristic of proud Spartans. The Melians then
countered by saying that the outcome of a war depends not only on power, but also chance, so there
remained hope for them. Chance itself, according to the Melians, depends on the divine (Strauss
notes that the Melians had not brought up the divine in relation to power), and the divine favours the
just. The Spartans are meant to compensate for the weakness of the Melians, arguing that it is in the
Spartan’s interest to do so. As far as the divine is concerned, the Athenias argued that were not acting
impiously:

As for good will from the divine, neither do we suppose that we will fall short. For we are neither
claiming as our right nor are we doing anything outside of human belief with regard to the divine or
human wish with regard to themselves. For we think, on the basis of opinion, regarding the divine, and

20
Strauss, Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, in: 1978: 185.
21
Idem.,
9
The Motion of War and History – Leo Strauss on Thucydides and the ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’

on the clear basis of a permanent compulsion of nature, regarding the human, that wherever they have
the might, they rule. And we neither laid down the law nor are we the first to have used it as laid down,
but we received it in existence and we will leave it behind us in existence forever; and we use it in the
knowledge that both you and others, if you came to have the same power as we have, would do it too.22

Here we have a clear portrayal of the ancient Greek perspective on divine law. It shows how the
divine realm does not condition behaviour, but justifies it. Because its interpretation is restrained to
the level of what is demonstrated by a natural order, it does not force man to act according to higher
principles. The divine only ‘sanctifies’ conventions and natural necessity.

But it also sustains hope. The dialogue eventually reveals that the strongest arguments of the Melians
are ultimately rooted in hope: hope that the divine favours the just, and hope that the Spartans will
see that it is in their best interest to aid Melos. This, though, is not yet enough. As Strauss states,
when departing the Athenians leave the Melians “with the remark that they are the only ones who
regard the future things as more evident than things seen, and who behold the unevident by virtue of
wishing it as already occurring; their ruin will be proportionate to their trust in Sparta and in chance
and in hopes. As appears from the sequel, the Athenian predictions comes true.”23 The Athenians
ultimately slaughtered their men and enslaved their women and children.

3) Immediately following this account, Thucydides mentions the Sicilian expedition (415-417 BC),
which in fact turned into a disaster. Against Pericles’ earlier advice for prudence and moderation, the
Athenians unduly, and unwisely, over-extended themselves. According to Thucydides fear was not
the only factor behind the choices the Athens eventually made, but so were self-interest and the
desire for glory.24 It was actually Pericles himself who had planted the seeds of encouragement and
daring that would play themselves out in the pursuit of Sicily – a quest which had long been a desire
of Athens’. But as Strauss writes:

Those who contend that there is a connection between the Melian dialogue and the Sicilian disaster
must have in mind a connection between the two events which Thucydides intimates rather than sets
forth explicitly by speaking of the emancipation of private interest in post-Periclean Athens. The
Melian dialogue shows nothing of such an emancipation. But it contains the most unabashed denial
occurring in Thucydides’ work of a divine law which must be respected by the city or which moderates
the city’s desire for “having more.” The Athenians on Melos, in contradistinction to Callicles or

22
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War; V. 105. 1-2. Quoted in: Bolotin, 1987: 14.
23
Strauss, Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, in: 1978: 188.
24
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War; I. 75; Referenced in: Boucher, 1998: 72.
10
The Motion of War and History – Leo Strauss on Thucydides and the ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’

Thrasymachus,25 limit themselves indeed to asserting the natural right of the stronger with regard to the
cities; but are Callicles and Thrasymachus not more consistent than they? Can one encourage, as even
Pericles and precisely Pericles does, the city’s desire for “having more” than other cities without in the
long run encouraging the individual’s desire for “having more” than his fellow citizens? Pericles was
indeed dedicated wholeheartedly to the common good of the city but to its common good unjustly
understood. He did not realize that the unjust understanding of the common good is bound to
undermine dedication to the common good however understood. He had not given sufficient thought to
the precarious character of the harmony between private interest and public interest; he had taken that
harmony too much for granted.26 [emphasis mine]

Thucydides nonetheless states that the Sicilian expedition could have succeeded with better
leadership.27 Although Nicias – whom had instigated the brief period of peace in the middle of the
war – had tried to dissuade the Athenians from ceding to their ambitions, he in fact fuelled it when
his calculated exaggerations on the need to expand the force of the expedition were taken seriously.
Because the Athenians were already resolved to undertake the expedition, Nicias’ words, far from
discouraging Athenians, added to their confidence. In fact, they fell ‘in love’ with the expedition – a
feeling rooted in their ‘erotic’ love for their city that Pericles himself had promoted.28 But Nicias had
also laid the foundation for the later dismissal of one of Athens’ most skilled commanders by putting
into question his integrity. Nicias’ suggestion that Alcibiades’ private interests did not reflect Athens’
public interests was no mere defamation, but based principally on his aim to prevent the expedition.
The accusation was technically true in terms of conventional or ‘civic virtue’ – but that does not
mean that Alcibiades’ interests were not themselves a reflection of the private interests of those in the
Athenian assembly, or that these at bottom deviated from the good of the city; supposedly the public
good.29 Strauss mentions that Thucydides “is less sure than Nicias that Alcibiades’ concern with his
own aggrandizement is simply opposed to the interest of Athens, and he is quite sure that the success
of the Sicilian expedition depended decisively on Alcibiades’ participation in it on the side of the
Athenians.” 30 There is a tension between courage and moderation being depicted here.

The effect was nevertheless that the Assembly voted to send both Nicias and Alcibiades to Sicily,
convinced that the experience and moderation of Nicias and the daring character of Alcibiades would
prove a powerful combination. But events took a turn for the worst from the beginning. Just before

25
Callicles is an interlocutor in Plato’s Gorgias who attempts to separate the virtues of wisdom and courage as central to those of
moderation and justice. (Seth Benardete, Plato’s ‘Laws’: The Discovery of Being, 2000; pp. 23-4.) Trasymachus is an interlocutor in
Plato’s Republic who contends that justice is in the interest of the stronger. On the view of Trasymachus and Socrates’ refutation see:
Strauss, Plato, in: 1987: pp. 37-40.
26
Strauss, Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, in: 1978: pp. 193-94.
27
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War; II. 65. 11; cf. VI. 15.3-4; Referenced in: Bolotin, Thucydides, in: 1987: 15.
28
Bolotin, Thucydides, in: 1987: 20.
29
Idem., p. 23.
30
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War; VI. 15; Quoted in: Strauss, Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, in: 1978: 204.
11
The Motion of War and History – Leo Strauss on Thucydides and the ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’

departing, statues of Hermes (Hermai) – among other things, a god of trade and commerce – were
mysteriously desecrated overnight. This act of impiety, along with the more serious suggestion that
someone had profaned the [Eleusinian] mysteries by disclosing its secrets to the uninitiated, was
interpreted as a bad omen, and cast the whole enterprise under a negative light. It was also used
against Alcibiades by his political opponents, some who had pushed for his impeachment, and even
death, although the final decision was eventually postponed. This was short-lived. Soon after setting
sail his opponents took advantage of his absence and accused him of further spurious crimes propped
up by dubious ‘witnesses’.31 When word was sent from Athens demanding his recall, Alcibiades,
instead of standing trial, fleed to Sparta, eventually helping them in their war against Athens (towards
the end of the war he does return to play an important role defending Athens, though not before
having also helped the Persians, who had been looking to take advantage of the situation).

Left alone, Nicias, competent but lacking in daring and ‘untainted’ by hybris, made crucial mistakes
at crucial times. When overwhelmed by the Peloponnesian force, Nicias deferred decisive action in
the hope that Athenians at home would come to the conclusion that their cause was lost unless
reinforcements were sent or the navy recalled. Although he eventually received support from
Demosthenes, even this proved insufficient. At this point the only alternative was to return to Athens
and rearm while there was still time and they continued to maintain naval superiority. Yet despite the
vociferous requests from his soldiers, Nicias was unwilling to undertake any such action without
explicit orders. Keeping in mind the suspicious nature of Athenian democracy, he was actually more
scared of being accused of taking bribes from the enemy.32 But the decision was eventually forced
upon him when things took a turn for the worse, and a lunar eclipse was perceived as a bad omen by
both him and his men. Despite their adverse conditions, Nicias gave in to piety, taking the decision
to remain in place until the prescribed “thrice nine days” of the soothsayers had passed.33 The
Syracusans then unexpectedly took the initiative – ‘became Athenians’ – and overtook Nicias and his
fleet, forcing them to leave their dead and wounded behind.34

During this whole ordeal Nicias endeavoured to keep the hopes of his troops up, speaking of how
chance was on their side, confident that virtue and piety – qualities he believed in, and was seen, to
embody – would favour them with salvation. As Strauss comments, Nicias and his Athenian army
showed in deed what the Melians had argued in speech.35 More to the point, Nicias’ speech and deeds
reflected his own private hopes and interests. He held his reputation, based on his known decency

31
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War; VI. 53, 60.1 – 61.1; Bolotin, Thucydides, in: 1987: 23.
32
Bolotin, Thucydides, in: 1987: 25.
33
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War; VII. 50.3-4; Quoted in: Strauss, Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, in: 1978: 206.
34
Strauss, Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, in: 1978: 206.
35
Idem., p. 209.
12
The Motion of War and History – Leo Strauss on Thucydides and the ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’

and piety, to be unassailable because of his conventional virtue, i.e. his devotion to established
custom.36 But because his piety and ‘public virtue’ were based on convention, there was no other
measure of his virtue except conventional virtue itself, meaning that his actions and speeches were in
fact attempts to reconcile public interests with his own private hopes and interests.37 This was
reflected in his “choice to die ‘privately’ in Sicily.”38

Strauss gives an instructive analysis of these events that deserves to be stated in full:

The Sicilian expedition, or rather its cause, not only the stasis, is a kind of grave sickness but a noble
sickness. Thucydides speaks of the eros of the Athenians for the Sicilian expedition. Pericles had called
upon the Athenians to become lovers (erastai) of their city (II 43.1). It was the community of lovers of
their city who desired to adorn their beloved with the jewel Sicily. One could say that ‘Athens in Sicily’
is greater than Pericles’ Athens according to Pericles himself: it surpasses all other “everlasting
memorials of evils” (II 41.4) which Athens has left anywhere. The eros of the Athenian for Sicily is the
peak of his eros for his city, and that eros is his full dedication to his city, the willingness to sacrifice, to
forget everything private for the sake of the city, a willingness which finds an appropriate and hence not
unambiguous expression in what Pericles says in his Funeral Speech about the aged parents, the
widows, and the orphans of the fallen soldiers. Or, as Alcibiades indicates, only glory after death brings
about the perfect harmony between the private and the public (VI 16.5). If the highest eros is that for
the city and if the city reaches its peak in an eros like that of Athens for Sicily, eros is of necessity
tragic or, as Plato seems to suggest, the city is the tragedy par excellence. In accordance with all this,
Athens’ defeat is her triumph: her enemies have to become in a manner Athenians in order to defeat
her; she is defeated because she has succeeded in becoming the teacher of Hellas. As for Sparta, her
victory, whether due to Apollo or not, is of interest only as the reverse side of Athens’ defeat.”39

36
Strauss states the important role that Nicias plays in Thucydides’ account of the war in a footnote: “The unique significance of Nicias
consists in the fact that he is the representative par excellence of moderation in the city of daring. As the pious gentleman warrior who
is concerned with his military renown and with omens, he represents also the class of readers primarily addressed by Thucydides
whose work deals above all with war and with omens (cf. I. 23.2-3); that work is best understood if one reads it as primarily addressed
to the Niciases of the future generations, potential pillars of their cities who will be attracted as a matter of course by the account of the
greatest war which was so great because of the large number of battles as well as of omens. Among those primary addressees there will
be some who can learn to raise their sights beyond Nicias or who can ascend. That ascent will be guided in the first place by
Thucydides’ explicit praise of men other than Nicias: of Themistocles, Pericles, Brasidas, Pisistratus, Archelaus, Hermocrates, and
Antiphon. But it will also eventually be guided by Thucydides’ praise, only silently conveyed, of Demosthenes and Diodotus.”
(Strauss, Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, in: 1978: 202n. 68.) I explain the importance of Diodotus below.
37
Bolotin, Thucydides, in: 1987: 26.
38
Idem., p. 25.
39
Strauss, Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, in: 1978: pp. 225-26.

13
The Motion of War and History – Leo Strauss on Thucydides and the ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’

As Strauss states, Thucydides’ “quest for truth”40 is to demonstrate the ‘universal in the singular
event.’41 He believes that the Peloponnesian war – in contrast with earlier wars, namely the Trojan
war – is the greatest of wars, the absolute war, because it engulfed not only all of Greece, but even
included barbarians.42 Moreover, the principal cities were at their peak at the outbreak of war. Greece
was at its peak. The war then reveals the peak of Greekness through motion, which is then followed
by descent. Before the war, Greece was at its greatest rest, which is when the essence of Greekness
reached its peak. This peak is only understood in terms of what it so greatly contrasts – barbarism –
for before becoming “Greeks” the Greeks had to overcome the universal and original state of
barbarism. Strauss adds in this context that “just as humanity divides itself into Greeks and
barbarians, Greekness in its turn has two poles, Sparta and Athens.”43 For this reason, Strauss
suggests, Thucydides felt it so important to question the importance of the Trojan war and the
authority of Homer. He does this by demonstrating that “human wisdom rather than anything else is
the core of Greekness.”44 The peak of Greekness and their decline (re-barbarization) – the contrast
demonstrated by the ‘greatest motion’ – therefore demonstrates the ‘limits of all human things’, and
consequently why the work of Thucydides, according to Strauss, “is a possession for all times.”45

The accomplishment of Thucydides, then, lies in his demonstration that the ‘greatness’ of the
Peloponnesian War derives from its revealing that which transcends the city, and this then illustrates
the universal in the singular event. This is demonstrated by Athens, who, though perhaps not a better
city than Sparta, vindicated herself through her ‘natural gifts’: her individuals.

One telling example is Diodotus, whom appears only once in the narrative, and is further not
mentioned in other sources. In fact, he does not even seem to have intervened in politics except in
this one case mentioned by Thucydides.46 Diodotus’ speech is a skillful argument against Cleon
meant to prevent the Mytileneans from being killed by the Athenians as punishment for their crimes.
His main argument is that the wisdom of capital punishment must take into account that regardless of
its attempts to deter further or more reprehensible crimes, in the long-run “nomos is powerless

40
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War; I. 20.3; Quoted in: Strauss, Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, in: 1978: 143.
41
Strauss, Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, in: 1978: 143; See also: Bolotin, Thucydides, in: 1987: 31.
42
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War; I. 1.2; Quoted in: Strauss, Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, in: 1978: 155.
43
Strauss, Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, in: 1978: 156.
44
Idem., p. 158.
45
Idem., p. 157.
46
Bolotin, Thucydides, in: 1987: 28.
14
The Motion of War and History – Leo Strauss on Thucydides and the ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’

against human physis” – i.e. convention is powerless before human nature.47 But this does not mean
that he disregards the question of justice. His argument is a reply to that of Cleon whom had “based
his argument above all on the consideration of justice and secondarily on the consideration of
expediency”, disregarding ‘compassion’ and ‘mildness’ as if the latter were “wholly incompatible
with empire (40.2-3).”48 Even so, Diodotus does not appeal to compassion and mildness, but instead
‘pretends’ to ignore the argument based on justice by arguing on the basis of expediency alone, only
to go back to the question of justice and the possibility of a plea of innocence once he has put his
audience in a mood favourable to such a consideration. As David Bolotin explains, Diodotus’
deception is based on his awareness that he would have been suspected of weakness, in light of
Cleon’s argument, and of betraying Athens’ interests.49 Diodotus therefore draws a link between the
city’s freedom and her empire as ‘the greatest things’, and for that reason more important than
justice. He also spoke out that all men, both privately and publicly, are ultimately moved to some
form of transgression; in other words, no law or convention will ever restrain their nature. But since
Diodotus knew this, then it cannot be the case that he was referring to law, which is public, in his
argument. This means that he was applying the Athenian argument for empire to men in private (i.e.
individuals), and as such did not equate the ‘primacy of the good’ with the city, but with the
individual; “the ultimate good is the good of the individual.”50 So he deceives the Athenians by
suggesting that he considers the city’s best interests as “the greatest things”, knowing that otherwise
they wouldn’t have listened to his advice, and this then justifies the Athenian’s suspicions that it is
private self-interest that motivates their speakers. Either way, they ultimately did follow his advice,
even if based on self-interest.

This speech, in the context of the whole, is important. Strauss writes that Diodotus’ speech contrasts
the ‘thesis of archeology ’ – Greek culture emerged from an ‘original barbarism’ or ‘weakness of the
ancients’ – with a belief in progress allied to an ‘innovating Athens’.51 In making the distinction
between nomos and physis, the suggestion that emerges is that in the past capital punishment was
‘softer’ – for even the ‘gravest of crimes’ were at one point not punished – and it was only to deter

47
Strauss, Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, in: 1978: 234.
48
Idem.,
49
Bolotin, Thucydides, in: 1987: pp. 30-1.
50
Idem., p. 31.
51
Strauss also mentions that Plato sketched a comparable account “from the beginning up to the century in which he and Thucydides
were born” in the Laws. It begins with the Flood (Laws,677), and presumably ends with the fall of Athens (700a-703), which Plato
explains (and Strauss reminds us) in the context of changes in nomoi, a term referring to both ‘laws’ and songs or hymns. The parallel
with the divergence from musical standards as ‘laid down by the Muse’ (700d) to the ‘authority’ of public pleasure is meant to show
how this individual (and democratic) conviction of taste could inevitably lead to a reckless ‘theatrocracy’ where no authority can
safeguard the possibilities of a ‘musical meritocracy.’ Plato concludes this section of the dialogue with the Athenian stating that “a
lawgiver should frame his code with an eye on three things: the freedom, unity and wisdom of the city for which he legislates.” (701d).
Strauss himself writes, in comparing Plato’s archaeology with Thucydides’, that Plato “explains how the good Athenian regime which
obtained at the time of the Persian war, the ancestral regime, was transformed into the extreme democracy of his time. He traces this
change to the wilful disregard of the ancestral law regarding music and the theatre: by making no longer the best and the wisest but the
audience at large the judges of songs and plays, Athens decayed.” (Strauss, Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, in: 1978: 237.)
15
The Motion of War and History – Leo Strauss on Thucydides and the ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’

the ineffectiveness of such a state of affairs that capital punishment was introduced. This in a way
matches Thucydides’ archeological thesis, which in itself implies the ‘certainty of progress’
culminating in an ‘innovating Athens.’ But Strauss notes that Thucydides does not explicitly praise
Athens as he does Sparta and Spartan moderation. What's more, Thucydides ‘barely hints’ at the
existence of rich and powerful non-Greek (i.e. barbarian) societies before the arrival of Greek
societies. It is thus significant that, although this ‘belief in progress’ is not directly refuted by
Thucydides himself, it is by Diodotus. Strauss subsequently concludes that it is Diodotus’ speech –
an “act of humanity which is compatible with the survival of Athens and even of her empire” – that
“properly reflects [Thucydides’] thought on the political plane.”52

What Strauss attempts to show – particularly in the context of Plato and Aristotle, which he discusses
in City and Man alongside Thucydides – is that already in Thucydides we see an inkling of this
political appreciation of what distinguishes virtue based on convention and that which is considered
natural. It is this one speech in particular that Strauss suggests “reveals more of Thucydides himself
than does any other speech.”53 This is why Thucydides presented “his whole wisdom in the form of a
narrative interspersed with speeches which is severely limited to things political, which is severely
political—which is silent about what is at present called Athenian culture.” Further on, Strauss
clarifies this statement by adding : “Wisdom cannot be ‘said.’ It can only be ‘done.’”54

Strauss points out that by understanding the thought of Thucydides through his work “one sees with
one’s own eyes that Athens was in a sense the home of wisdom.” His work is the product of “her
power and wealth…her defective polity…her spirit of daring innovation…her active doubt of the
divine law.” It is only through Thucydides that Pericles accomplishes everlasting glory. Thucydides
‘rides the tiger’ by looking beyond the delusions endemic to any healthy city – those that are just as
capable of propelling it to great heights as dragging it to its doom. Strauss is unequivocal in stating
what this represents:

In Athens…two heterogeneous universalisms become in a way fused: the fantastic political universalism
becomes tinged, colored, suffused, transfigured by the true universalism, by the love of beauty and of
wisdom as Thucydides understands beauty and wisdom, and it thus acquires its tragic character; it thus
becomes able to foster a manly gentleness. The “synthesis” of the two universalisms is indeed impossible.

52
Strauss, Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, in: 1978: pp. 232-233.
53
Idem., p. 231.
54
Idem., p. 231. cf. pp. 237-238.
16
The Motion of War and History – Leo Strauss on Thucydides and the ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’

It is of utmost importance that this impossibility be understood. Only by understanding it can one
understand the grandeur of the attempt to overcome it and sensibly admire it.55

Strauss classifies Thucydides as a ‘philosophic historian’, as opposed to the ‘scientific’ or ‘realist’


label sometimes prescribed to him in modern times, and agrees with Hobbes – who was greatly
influenced by Thucydides – by quoting from him that in a good history “the narrative doth secretly
instruct the reader, and more effectually than can possibly be done by precept.”56 He “antedates
essentially, i.e. not temporally, the distinction between history and philosophy”57 by discovering in
the “singulars” of his time the “universal” through a concern with what is “first for us”. This ascent
would be carried out further by Plato, who could be said “to have discovered in a singular event—in
the singular life of Socrates—the universal and thus to have become able to present the universal
through presenting the singular.”58

In this context, the drama of Socrates and his relation with Athens reveals how a democracy itself is a
result of decay, yet at the same time the best means possible for purification. This decay comes about
by unfettered desire no longer guided by eros. When individuals go beyond their natural ends in
search for unnecessary things that do not pertain to their well-being (cf. notion of ‘harmony’),
dissatisfaction succeeds the uneven conditions that arise, and these in turn breed conflicts. But the
need for a restoration of justice precludes education of justice, resulting in a form of justice that “will
no longer be effective naturally” because some sort of compulsion will become necessary.
Hierarchies are then created. In seeking the highest philosophy becomes the ‘art of arts’, and this is
reflected in the mythical character that Socrates’ conversation on the education to piety displays (cf.
the ‘Myth of Er’ at the end of the Republic). This is meant both for the educated and the educators.
But it is also meant to show “the ‘mythical’ character of theology, or the gravity of failing to raise
and answer the question: ‘what is a god?’, or, ‘who are the gods?’”.59 With this fundamental question
Strauss concludes his account of Thucydides’ Peloponnesian Wars. As pointed out earlier, City and
Man illustrates a reversal that may suggest a descent from the ‘heights of classical political
philosophy’ to that which is ‘first for us’: “man as completely immersed in political life.”

55
Strauss, Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, in: 1978: 230.
56
Hobbes, English Works (ed. Molesworth) VIII, pp. viii, xvi-xvii, xxii, xxix, and xxxii; Quoted in: Strauss, Thucydides’
Peloponnesian War, in: 1978: 144.
57
Strauss, Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, in: 1978: 143.
58
Idem., p. 143.
59
Leo Strauss, The City and Man, p. 98.
17
The Motion of War and History – Leo Strauss on Thucydides and the ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’

Strauss seems to recognize that there is something about the ‘omnipresence of War’ that sheds much
light on the human condition, which is why he juxtaposes the teaching of Thucydides with that of
Plato and Aristotle in City and Man – a compilation of three essays analyzing individual works these
classical writers.60 Interestingly enough, Strauss inverts their order: he begins with Aristotle even
though, chronologically speaking, Thucydides came first, followed by Plato and later Aristotle. In the
end of his account on Thucydides Strauss seems to implicitly justify this decision:

“Thucydides does not rise to the heights of classical political philosophy because he is more concerned
than is classical political philosophy with what is ‘first for us’ as distinguished from what is ‘first by
nature.’ Philosophy is the ascent from what is first for us to what is first by nature. This ascent requires
that what is first for us be understood as adequately as possible in the manner in which it comes to sight
prior to ascent. In other words, political understanding or political science cannot start from seeing the
city as the Cave but it must start from seeing the city as a world, as the highest in the world; it must
start from seeing man as completely immersed in political life: ‘the present war is the greatest war.’
Classical political philosophy presupposes the articulation of this beginning of political understanding
but it does not exhibit it as Thucydides does in an unsurpassable, nay, unrivalled manner. The quest for
that ‘common sense’ understanding of political things which led us first to Aristotle’s Politics, leads us
eventually to Thucydides’ War of the Peloponnesians and Athenians.”

So, how are we to understand this account of Thucydides in relation to Strauss’s notion of ‘esoteric’
writing? Well, we can take up Strauss’s own concluding remarks in On a Forgotten Kind of Writing:

At the very least the observations I have made will force historians sooner or later to abandon the
complacency with which they claim to know what the great thinkers thought, to admit that the thought of
the past is much more enigmatic than it is generally held to be, and to begin to wonder whether the
historical truth is not as difficult of access as the philosophic truth.61

If anything, Strauss’s reading of Thucydides reveals how the very “quest for truth” also played a role
in Thucydides’ account of historical events. This quest, however, was given shape in the form of a
narrative meant to bring to the fore the most relevant aspects that resulted in the Peloponnesian War.
Because Thucydides considered war to be an expression of human nature, he placed great emphasis
on the different public speeches given by various individuals. However, these speeches further reveal
another fundamental aspect underlying the Peloponnesian war: the tension between nomos and physis
– convention and nature. It is this aspect of Thucydides’ account that Strauss is attempting to reveal;
and it this aspect which lies at the basis of his turn to classical philosophy following his rediscovery

60
Aristotle’s Politics, Plato’s Republic, and War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians by Thucydides.
61
Leo Strauss, ‘On a Forgotten Kind of Writing,’ in 1988: p. 232.
18
The Motion of War and History – Leo Strauss on Thucydides and the ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’

of the ‘esoteric tradition.’ The struggle between convention and human nature, penetratingly revealed
by Thucydides in his depiction of the Athenian polis – its abandonment of piety, the logic of empire
and its effects, the influence of eros on its demos, and most importantly for our purposes: the tension
between public and private speech as depicted in the case of Diodotus. All these are aspects that will
return – though in a more highly developed form – in the work of Plato and Aristotle, and to varying
degrees thereafter. It is this lineage of thought that Strauss is attempting to reveal in City and Man,
which thereby represents a descent from classical political philosophy (Aristotle) to its foundation in
the pre-philosophic [natural] consciousness of Thucydides; i.e., “the ‘common sense’ understanding
of political things.”62

One discerns from these accounts a highly variegated conception of truth concerning knowledge of
human nature and knowledge of the whole. This is the problem that Strauss wants us to view in
contradistinction to the historicist perspective. As I previously mentioned, it is the distinction
between the quest for truth and a tacit acceptance of opinion as truth that is the real core of the
esoteric tradition according to Strauss. As he writes in response to a similar criticism by M. Yvon
Belaval:

I did not suggest that one can make the study of the history of philosophy independent of every
philosophic postulate. History of philosophy necessarily presupposes the persistence of the same
fundamental problems. This, and this alone, is the trans-temporal truth which must be admitted.63

That is not to say that asking whether or not Strauss truly grasped the ‘truth’ of Thucydides’ account,
and if so, how this can be determined, is thereby precluded. It is probably the case that such a
question will always remain valid precisely because it reveals a fundamental hermeneutic problem
intrinsic to the modern historical consciousness: its distant relation to ancient ontology mediated by
classical writings. If anything, Strauss was well aware of the interpretive challenge of the
philosophical, and political, statement, which is clearly demonstrated in his discussions where he
points to the difference between ‘private’ and ‘public’ speech. I have tried to reveal this aspect of his
work as is evident in his study of Thucydides; particularly in the relation between ‘courage’ and
‘moderation,’ which also helps reveal the necessary tension between philosophy and the city. So it is
certainly not the case that Strauss underestimated the “difficulties of understanding.”

Instead, the relation between speech and writing is used to show what it is taken for granted in
speaking of ‘theory’: modern thought’s adjudication to nature, and eventually, the act of [free] will, is

62
Leo Strauss, The City and Man, p. 240.
63
Leo Strauss, ‘On a Forgotten Kind of Writing,’ in 1988: p. 229.
19
The Motion of War and History – Leo Strauss on Thucydides and the ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’

reflected in the inevitable accommodation of speech and writing according to the circumstances of a
particular time. What is problematic about this argument is the implicit presupposition of a ‘historical
consciousness’ allowing us to make a distinction between ‘modern’ and ‘natural’ consciousness in
the first place. However, just as Strauss’s work may help foster a better understanding of the
“essential connection between hermeneutics and writing,” it is precisely the ‘historicity’ of the
problem of ‘nature’ that Strauss is attempting to invoke in his Platonic studies. But this in turn brings
to the fore the role of the Ideas in the Platonic dialogues, which, needless to say, lies beyond the
scope of this paper. I would nevertheless be willing to assume that such an investigation would
require a closer reading of Strauss’s investigations into Socratic virtue, both from the perspective of
Plato and Xenophon. For the moment it is best to keep in mind that, at root, Strauss’s philosophy
exhibits a serious political commitment. And this, I think, is partly revealed in Strauss’s reading of
Thucydides.

20
The Motion of War and History – Leo Strauss on Thucydides and the ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Benardete, Seth. Plato’s ‘Laws’: The Discovery of Being, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
(2000).

Bolotin, David. ‘Thucydides,’ in History of Political Philosophy, 3rd ed., Leo Strauss and Joseph
Cropsey eds.Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987 [1963].

Boucher, David. Political Theories of International Relations, Oxford: Oxford University Press
(1998).

Smith, Steven B. Reading Leo Strauss. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Strauss, Leo. Persecution and the Art of Writing. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1952.

—., City and Man. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978 [1964].

—., Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983.

—., ‘Plato’, In History of Political Philosophy, 3rd ed., Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey eds.Chicago:
The University of Chicago Press, 1987 [1963].

—., What is Political Philosophy?. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988 [1959].

—., Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity. Ed. Kenneth Hart Green. Albany: State
University of New York Press, 1997.

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War. Translated by Rex Warner, Intro. and notes by M.I.
Finley, New York: Penguin Classics, 1972 [1952].

21