Farabi’s Plato by Leo Strauss

Strauss, Leo. ”Farabi’s Plato.” In Louis Ginzberg: Jubilee Volume. New York: The American Academy for Jewish Research, 1945, pp. 357-393.


“It is generally admitted that one cannot understand the teaching of Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed before one has understood the teaching of “the philosophers”; for the former presents itself as a Jewish correction of the latter. To begin with, one can identify “the philosophers” with the Islamic Aristotelians, and one may describe their teaching as a blend of genuine Aristotelianism with Neo-platonism and, of course, Islamic tenets. If, however, one wants to grasp the principle transforming that mixture of heterogeneous elements into a consistent, or intelligible, whole, one does well to follow the signpost erected by Maimonides himself. In his letter to Samuel ibn Tibbon, he makes it abundantly clear that he considered the greatest authority in philosophy, apart from Aristotle himself, not Avicenna or Averroes, nor even Avempace, but Farabi. Of Farabi’s works, he mentions in that context only one by its title, and he recommends it to ibn Tibbon in the strongest terms. Thus we may assume to begin with that he considered it Farabi’s most important book. He calls that book The Principles of the Beings. Its original title is The Political Governments.

There can then be no doubt as to the proper beginning, i. e. the only beginning which is not arbitrary, of the understanding of Maimonides’ philosophic background: one has to start from an analysis of Farabi’s Political Governments. It would be unwise to attempt such an analysis now. In the first place, we lack a satisfactory edition. Above all, the full understanding of the book presupposes the study of two parallel works of Farabi’s, The Principles of the Opinions of the People of the Virtuous City and The Virtuous Religious Community, the second of which has not yet been edited at all. Maimonides presumably preferred The Political Governments to these parallel presentations. To discover the reason for that preference, or, at any rate, to understand The Political Governments fully, one has to compare the doctrines contained in that book with the doctrines contained in the parallel works, and thus to lay bare the teaching characteristic of The Political Governments. For that teaching consists, to some extent, of the silent rejection of certain tenets which are adhered to in the two other works.”