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et revelabitur quasi aqua iudicium et iustitia quasi torrens fortis

 

Leo Strauss's Religion
Dennis Teti

Jerusalem and Athens: Reason and Revelation in the Work of Leo Strauss
Susan Orr
Rowman & Littlefield, 1995
245 pages, $22.95

Leo Strauss dedicated his work to the revival of classical political philosophy. Strauss's enterprise was made possible by his rediscovery of the art of esoteric writing, according to which great thinkers wrote so as to conceal as well as to reveal their thought. Strauss's critics denounced his esotericism as elitist, but he merely made explicit what previous philosophers knew, and what thinkers as diverse as St. Augustine, Alfarabi, John Locke, and perhaps Jesus, acknowledged.

Strauss analyzed the major dichotomies of thought - revelation and reason, ancients and moderns. Each revolves around the search for wisdom, but wisdom is understood so differently in each tradition that according to Strauss all cannot be true simultaneously and any synthesis among the traditions is impossible. The dichotomy between reason and revelation is the greater of the two and overarches the distinction between ancients and moderns.

Strauss's most explicit comparison of the respective claims to wisdom of theology and philosophy can be found in his forty-one paragraph monograph on "Jerusalem and Athens." Susan Orr, in her new book, undertakes the task of analyzing that article paragraph by paragraph, applying Strauss's esoteric method to his own work. In this meticulous study she demonstrates that in spite of explicit, or exoteric, declarations in his text to the contrary, "if he tips the scales at all it is toward Jerusalem."

According to Orr, Strauss was confronted by the difficulty that his students and readers were mostly secular intellectuals of a century that rejects the truth claims of the Bible. They looked to Strauss for a vindication of human reason through a deeper understanding of philosophy. To tell such students that they should follow the way of life recommended in the Torah would amount to useless sermonizing - instead Strauss appears to place himself in their camp to gain their serious consideration of sacred texts.

Orr shows us that Strauss provided a fresh and careful reading of Genesis. The reader learns how to begin reading sacred Scripture as a book at least as worthy of serious consideration as the Platonic dialogues about which Strauss wrote most copiously. Orr suggests that Strauss's account of the Platonic deities points beyond them to the mysterious God of the Bible. Precisely because the Bible is enigmatic, containing "self-contradictions" or at least "seeming contradictions," Orr says that "Strauss shows the need for a guide" to a proper understanding of its mysteries (an assertion that implicitly buttresses the Catholic Church's claim to provide just such authoritative guidance, though Strauss of course does not refer to it).

From Nietzsche, perhaps, Strauss learned the paradox of the great teacher who shows greatest care for his students by persuading them to break with his teaching and "go alone, my disciples." Strauss reveals a noble, loving care for his readers, not by secretly teaching them the superiority of Socratic rationalism - why keep that a secret in our secular age of freedom? - but by intransigently refusing to decide the central issue of piety or philosophy as the best way of life for man. His profoundly beautiful reading of the Torah gradually moves his secularized students to reconsider the way of life recommended by the biblical God. Orr's achievement in this study is to show that for Strauss, "the philosopher open to the challenge of theology" Jerusalem provides at least as cboiceworthy a way of life for thoughtful men as Athens.

I am less persuaded than Orr, however, that Strauss sought common ground between Judaism and Christianity, or was not at least a quiet critic of Christianity. She herself quotes Strauss saying that "the Messiah" according to the Jewish prophets "is inferior to Moses," flatly contradicting the central claim of Christianity as well as its understanding of the prophets. Moreover, Strauss's literal reading of the Jewish scriptures rules out the typological method of St. Augustine and the Church fathers, not to mention the New Testament itself, e.g., Hebrews 10:1. And there is the testimony of Strauss himself in a 1963 article called "perspectives on the Good Society":

[A]s is shown by the whole history of Christian-Jewish relations, recognition of that common ground is not in any way sufficient for mutual recognition of the two faiths. . . . The Jew may recognize that the Christian error is a blessing, a divine blessing, and the Christian may recognize that the Jewish error is a blessing, a divine blessing. Beyond this they cannot go without ceasing to be Jew or Christian.

However that may be, Strauss understood that the soul of Western man lives in tension between reason and revelation. Other students of Strauss attempt to collapse the two into one, unstringing the tension. Orr's "Straussian" reading of Strauss shows the philosopher to be not just open to theology, but actively aiding the biblical God. Perhaps this is Strauss's greatest contribution to the salvation of Western civilization and of human freedom.

Dennis Teti is adjunct professor of political science at Hillsdale College and special assistant at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.


? 1995-1996 Crisis Magazine

Leo Strauss's Religion
Marc D. Guerra

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Jew and Philosopher: The Return to Maimonides in the Jewish Thought of Leo Strauss
Kenneth Hart Green
State University of New York Press, 1995
278 pages, $19

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Kenneth Hart Green's book represents a new beginning in the scholarly consideration of Leo Strauss. Strauss's commentators have tended to view the twentieth century German Jewish migr?primarily as a historian of political philosophy. Some, slightly more daring, have declared Strauss a philosopher in his own right. Green, however, is the first to sustain a prolonged argument that Strauss was both a Jew and a philosopher.

Strauss himself frequently pointed out the problematic nature of being both a Jew, or a Christian, or a Muslim, and a philosopher. Strauss held that the designation "Jew," like the designation "philosopher," speaks to what defines a person at his core. Thus to call someone a philosopher is to claim that he has assumed a way of life that is in fundamental tension with a life that is lived according to the Bible. Participation in the philosophic life, Strauss held, demands forfeiting a life of obedience to divine revelation for a life of autonomous speculation and wonder.

How does Green defend his thesis? His argument rests upon Strauss's attempt to return to, and learn from, the form of premodern, Jewish rationalism of which Moses Maimonides is the exponent par excellence. Green holds that Strauss's nascent Maimonideanism led him to suspect, relatively early in his intellectual career, something defective in modern political rationalism's alleged victory over the Socratic approach to human affairs, politics, morality, and religion. This classical dialectic, Green shows, is behind much of Strauss's youthful writings on Spinoza.

Because Strauss took seriously Spinoza's claim to have arrived at a comprehensive philosophic system that could account for all things as "evident and necessary," he saw that Spinoza's dismissal of the challenge revealed religion poses to philosophy as being philosophically untenable. Strauss's fidelity to philosophy as a way of life forced him to conclude that Spinoza's system was ultimately arbitrary, not compelling, and had failed to take on revealed religion on its own terms. Strauss came to view Spinoza's system as an example of the dogmatic skepticism and atheism that characterizes modern rationalism as a whole.

According to Green, it was while Strauss was working through Spinoza's thought that he realized that Maimonides was in fact a "deeper thinker" than Spinoza. The discovery led Strauss to recognize that Maimonides's brand of Socratic rationalism was both philosophically sound and genuinely amenable to Jews seeking to remain faithful to Judaism. In reflecting on Maimonides's writings, Green maintains that Strauss found the paradigm of the "philosophical theologian," the Jew and the philosopher. Maimonides emerges as a Jew "who resorts to ?unbelieving' philosophy only in order to defend 'the assumption of the traditional faith.'"

As Green shows, Strauss's reading of Maimonides teaches that the prophet is an intellectually and morally perfect man who ascends higher even than the philosopher - only to descend and bestow authoritative divine law upon his people. The prophet's uniquely legislative character allows him to guide others to a state of perfection while at the same time preserving the order and justice of the divinely established city. Since the law delivered by the prophet is of divine origin, those whom nature has endowed with intellectual gifts are justified, indeed, obligated, to attempt to comprehend the divine teaching in its totality. Room is thus made in the life of the faithful Jew for philosophical speculation.

Green convincingly argues that Strauss derived two lessons from his encounter with Maimonides. First, Strauss learned that revealed religion, as found in the Hebrew Bible, confronts philosophy with a formidable challenge that the gods of Greek poetry could not pose on the same terms. Green sees in this awareness the lineage of Strauss's affirmation that neither philosophy nor biblical revelation can refute the other's fundamental claim to truth.

Second, Green takes Strauss to have learned from Maimonides a truth concerning the delicate nature of the moral teachings that can be advanced by philosophy. He suggests that despite Strauss's famous book defending "natural right" - Natural Right and History - Maimonides led Strauss to appreciate that perhaps, finally, only a morality rooted in divine revelation could stand up to the most rigorous intellectual scrutiny - a point, I might add, also made by St. Augustine.

Green closes his book by noting that like Maimonides, Strauss never openly confessed to whether he considered himself Jew, philosopher, or Jewish philosopher. This lacuna leaves his nuanced portrayal of these two thinkers open to the serious charge that by deliberately presenting their thought couched in political reflections, Strauss and Maimonides effectively masked the fact that they were residents of Athens who merely trafficked through Jerusalem. Green nonetheless has thrown down a gauntlet that thoughtful students of Strauss and Maimonides cannot ignore. Thus he encourages both the partisans of philosophy and of biblical faith to reflect deeply on what profound thinkers like Strauss and Maimonides considered "the only question which ultimately matters."

Marc D. Guerra is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Theology at Boston College.


? 1995-1996 Crisis Magazine