Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Leo Strauss: A Commencement Address

Shortened 75%

You have acquired a liberal education.  I could praise you for your achievement, but I would be untrue to the obligation which I have undertaken if I did not supplement my congratulations with a warning.

Liberal education is education in culture or toward culture, but today chiefly it means the cultivation of the mind.

Just as the soil needs cultivators, the mind needs teachers. But teachers are not as easy to come by as farmers. The teachers themselves are pupils and must be pupils. Yet there cannot be an infinite regress: ultimately there must be teachers who are not in turn pupils. Those are the great minds.

Such men are extremely rare. We are not likely to meet any of them anywhere. In fact, pupils have access to the greatest minds only through great books.

Liberal education will then consist in studying the books which the greatest minds have left behind -- a study in which the more experienced pupils assist the less experienced ones, including the beginners.

At present I mention only one difficulty which is obvious to everyone among you: the greatest minds do not all tell us the same things. The community of the greatest minds is rent by discord and even by various kinds of discord, which means that liberal education cannot be indoctrination.

In this respect as well as in some others, we do well to take as our model that one among the greatest minds who because of his common sense is the mediator between us and the greatest minds: Socrates.

We have heard Plato's suggestion that education in the highest sense is philosophy. The philosopher is declared to possess to the highest degree all the excellences of which man's mind is capable.

From this we must draw the conclusion that we cannot be philosophers.

We cannot be philosophers but we can love philosophy; we can try to philosophize. This philosophizing consists at any rate primarily in listening to the conversation between the great philosophers.

However, here we are confronted with the overwhelming difficulty that this conversation does not take place without our help -- that in fact we must bring about that conversation. The greatest minds utter monologues.

The greatest minds utter monologues even when they write dialogues.

We must then do something which the greatest minds were unable to do.
Let us face this difficulty -- a difficulty so great that it seems to condemn liberal education as an absurdity.

Since the greatest minds contradict one another regarding the most important matters, they compel us to judge of their monologues; we cannot take on trust what any one of them says. On the other hand we cannot but notice that we are not competent to be judges.

Yet we must face our awesome situation, created by the necessity that we try to be more than attentive and docile listeners, namely, judges, and yet we are not competent to be judges.

As it seems to me, the cause of this situation is that we have lost all simply authoritative traditions in which we could trust, the nomos*** which gave us authoritative guidance, because our immediate teachers and teachers' teachers believed in the possibility of a simply rational society. Each of us here is compelled to find his bearings by his own powers, however defective they may be.

The liberal education which you have acquired will avert the danger that the warning will be understood as a counsel of despair.

We have no comfort other than that inherent in this activity.  It leads us to realize that all evils are in a sense necessary if there is to be understanding. It enables us to accept all evils which befall us and which may well break our hearts in the spirit*** of good citizens of the city of God.

By becoming aware of the dignity of the mind, we realize the true ground of the dignity of man and therewith the goodness of the world,  which is the home of man because it is the home of the human mind.

Leo Strauss: 
What is Liberal Education?
Here shortened 75% --
For the complete text see

       Address delivered at the
       Department of Political Science
       The University of Chicago


*** nomothetic = Relating to the search for abstract universal principles according to 

*** "which may well break our hearts in the spirit of good citizens of the city of God."

Strauss probably alludes to  Saint Augustine's main work, but the sentence is not clear, for it seems to suggest that the breakage takes part in that spirit.  Likely the passage  will show its meaning sometime later.
It was part of the first paragraph, where it looked like too much of a hurdle.