The Cambridge Companion to Leo Strauss,

There is a new anthology of articles on Leo Strauss reviewed on ndpr. The review points out that all the articles present Stauss as a modern secularist. None of them present his work as having tensions between the Neo-Platonic and the contemporary situation. Rather than the approaches to Strauss that emphasize the natural order, the classic text, or the role of the philosopher-king, here we have a flexible pragmatic thinker. We dont have the Strauss that flirted with Orthodoxy in the 1930’s, nor the Strauss that looked for word plays in the 1970s. And those who just read the theological work God Interrupted by Benjamin Lazier will not find continuity. We have a Strauss that believed in philosophy and showed how it survived the assaults of religion and politics. The tension of religion and revelation will never be solved so we have to learn about techniques like esotericism to survive.

Steven B. Smith (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Leo Strauss, Cambridge UP, 2009, 307pp., $28.99 (pbk),
Reviewed by Samuel A. Chambers, Johns Hopkins University
Full version here.

Philosophy is threatened on the one side by a politics that would destroy it (3, 33) and on the other by a set of religious principles that would replace its search for knowledge with the positive content of revelation (115, 174).

In one of the stronger pieces in the volume, perhaps especially for those who are not close readers of Strauss’s entire body of work, Leora Batnitzky demonstrates… that Strauss was a non-believing Jew, an atheist who early in life embraced a strictly political zionism (43). While Strauss obviously understood the role that religious principles played in supporting social order, there is simply little reason to take him as a religious believer.

Strauss never sought a wholesale return to the pre-modern. The general argument, that Strauss does not simply or literally wish to return to ancient Philosophy, is repeated by numerous authors (7, 41-42, 93, 117, 173), but Catherine Zuckert makes this case most forcefully in her subtle exploration of the way in which Strauss returns to premodern thought. She quotes Strauss’s most important statement on this issue: “only we living today can possibly find a solution to the problems of today” (117).

As most contributors to this volume read Strauss, he saw the conflict between reason and revelation as irresolvable because the positions from which they argue are incommensurable. Revelation can be neither supported by nor blended with reason; this was the main problem Strauss identified in medieval philosophy, especially Thomism (58). Nor, however, can the former be refuted by the latter; this was potentially a problem for the earlier, perhaps more dogmatically atheistic Strauss who was tempted by this possibility, before later recognizing the complete incompatibility of the two. Indeed, it is Strauss’s later understanding of the fundamental importance of these two “roots of western civilization” (94), that reveals him fully — according to most of the contributors here — as a thoroughly non-dogmatic philosopher who believes in no universal moral standards, no singular truth. Smith emphasizes this perhaps unexpected or controversial point (one that certainly cuts against the grain of many criticisms of Strauss) when he insists that there is nothing absolutist about Strauss’s thought, and that his “return to nature” was a return to “flexible” standards (33).

Some readers may balk at the picture of a Strauss with flexible standards, as a skeptical thinker, as one who returned to a “nature” in premodern thought that was not fixed and eternal. But those readers are well-advised to engage closely with the readings in this volume, with the work of Strauss, and perhaps also with the writings of the classic political philosophers that Strauss and his followers have championed.

Strauss’s most explicit statement on interpretive method, “Persecution and the Art of Writing,” also stands as his most famous piece of writing (27). While it is well known that Strauss claimed to have “rediscovered” the ancient art of “esoteric” writing, this volume clarifies an important related point: precisely this rediscovery led Strauss to his own personal revolution in thought.

One of the little jewels of this collection, especially for those not already well steeped in the secondary literature on Strauss, is the exegesis by Laurence Lampert (and the summary by Smith and others) of the letters Strauss wrote to Jacob Klein in 1938 and 1939. These letters, only recently published in German and still untranslated into English, show clearly that Strauss did not develop his hermeneutics independently of his own readings, but truly did “discover” it in the sense that he came upon a way to make sense of a text that, for Strauss, was previously mysterious or full of contradictions. In the first letter that Lampert quotes, Strauss tells Klein that “Maimonides is getting more and more exciting” (63) and from this point on Strauss’s excitement only builds, with each letter more full of thrill than the previous one. Strauss is thrilled because for him Maimonides makes sense when one sees that “Maimonides in his beliefs was absolutely no Jew” (64, emphasis in original) and therefore he cannot be read as a “Jewish philosopher” writing a guide for believers. He must be read, instead, as a non-believer, writing a “radical critique of the Torah” that sounds to believers as if it is merely a repetition of the Torah, yet which adds “‘little’ ‘additions'” to signal to a few select readers (philosophers) what the text is really all about (65). Strauss’s better-known and (as Smith notes) much maligned theory of esoteric writing is contained in this kernel of insight (3). Philosophers like Maimonides who write under conditions of persecution (conditions in which to state plainly the truth in the face of dominant opinion would be to court disaster) must therefore produce texts that contain within them two very much distinct and at times utterly contradictory meanings. This then sets up the requirements for how good readers, those that Strauss refers to with an ambiguity that some might find ominous as “the few,” will read.

One problem with esoteric writing as a general theory of interpretation is that it becomes very difficult to know when to take an author at his or her word. Thus, my telling you that I have not written this review esoterically may in fact be the secret signal I give to a certain few readers that I am in fact writing esoterically, and to indicate to them that they should make sure to read me as such. Indeed, on Lampert’s interpretation of him, this is precisely what Strauss does in his essay on Halevi.

Here are the steps of the various readings, starting with Halevi’s text and then moving to Strauss’s reading of Halevi and Lampert’s reading of Strauss.
1) Halevi omits a discussion of the conflict between believer and philosopher.
2A) Strauss says the omission is intentional, designed to show esoterically that this conflict is exactly what matters most. (78)
2B) But Strauss then goes on to say that we should not “lay too much emphasis on this line of approach” (79).
3) Lampert then argues that this last line is Strauss’s esoteric claim: “to not lay too much emphasis on this approach is to take this approach” (79).

To sum up, Halevi omits what is, in fact, most important; Strauss downplays what is, in fact, most significant. But if we know that Halevi is writing esoterically (and can only interpret him properly because of this knowledge) and if we know Strauss is also writing esoterically in his interpretation (ditto), then we therefore know how to read Strauss on Halevi.

Moreover, Strauss felt certain that only a few were fit for the life of philosophy that he championed, and he therefore argued fairly directly that philosophy must be protected from the many who are simply unfit for it as a way of life. For this reason, much of Strauss’s political philosophy seems designed to make sure that philosophy can continue to exist, but precisely as a private and sheerly pedagogical affair (85, 150).

One response to “The Cambridge Companion to Leo Strauss,

  1. Strauss’s most creative writings are exactly the ones grappling with Judaism:
    His correspondence with Scholem is also of great interest.

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