Reason and Revelation: On Leo Strauss

by George Anastaplo

                           Keep therefore and do [these statutes and judgments]; for this

is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations,

 which shall hear all these statutes, and say, “Surely this great nation

is a wise and understanding people.”

–Moses

 

I.

Leo Strauss, who was an ardent Zionist in his youth in Germany, retained a lifelong interest in Jewish things. His least controversial major achievements were as a scholar working with Jewish texts.

Professor Strauss’s Jewishness was a significant factor to be taken into account in any effort to understand what he said and meant even as a student of political philosophy. I ventured to say something about this in my 1974 tribute to him [reprinted in Anastaplo, The Artist as Thinker: From Shakespeare to Joyce (Chicago: Swallow Press, 1983), p. 249] which includes the text of the talk he made at a 1961 funeral, a passionate talk which indicates as much as anything the intensity of what Judaism meant to him.

These observations bear upon an argument of sorts I have had for some years now with various other students of Mr. Strauss. Old and dear friends of mine have objected when I notice in print what has long seemed obvious to me about the importance of Judaism for him. They seem to believe that something troublesome is being suggested thereby about the character of his philosophical pursuits. (See Appendix E of this book, Anastaplo, The Bible: Respectful Readings. See, also, Anastaplo, “Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago,” in Kenneth L. Deutsch and John A. Murley, eds., Leo Strauss, the Straussians, and the American Regime [Rowman & Littlefield, 1999].)

II.

A valuable 1983 paper by Ernest Fortin can be read as offering support for my position. He helps explain why I have made the observations I have, if not also why I have elicted the adverse responses I have. Professor Fortin notices “the absence of any thematic treatment of Christianity anywhere in Strauss’s writings or of any extended commentary by Strauss on the works of an unmistakably Christian author.” (See Ernest L. Fortin, Classical Christianity and the Political Order [Lanham, Maryland.: Rowman & Littlefield (1996)], II, 287.) On the other hand, we recall the many fine commentaries by Mr. Strauss on Jewish texts, including the work he did on Genesis, on Maimonides, and on Halevi. Compare the considerably greater interest shown in Christian things by Jacob Klein, Mr. Strauss’s longtime friend and colleague.

What Mr. Fortin says, and says in a particularly useful fashion, about the lack of a political program in original Christianity may help explain why Mr. Strauss did not devote himself to Christian texts:   Mr. Strauss did consider political philosophy as the most reliable way into philosophy itself, in these times at least if not always. Perhaps, as well, he saw Christianity as a major source of innumerable woes for Jews over the centuries. He did not want to appear to compromise in any way, by his interests and pursuits, the integrity of his deeply-felt Jewish allegiance.

There seems to have been as well the judgment on Mr. Strauss’s part that the miracles required for faith in Christianity are significantly different from those required for the Judaic faith. Indeed, he could see the Maimonidian version of Judaism as requiring no, or virtually no, reliance upon miracles, aside from how the Creation itself is to be understood.

III.

Not only did Mr. Strauss avoid Christian texts for any major study, he also avoided making explicit the kinds of reservations I have just speculated about. He did not consider it prudent to spell out in public whatever reservations he himself may have had about Christianity.

For one thing, he recognized and many times said that there is, at least in the United States, common ground shared by political philosophy and Christianity, especially the Roman Catholic Church, in the struggle against modern relativism and vulgar hedonism. Besides, Mr. Strauss always was in these matters a very cautious man:   he was always aware, that is, of his minority status as a Jew and even more as a student of political philosophy, an awareness which very much contributed to his sensitivity to the possibility of esotericism.

Certainly he did not want to jeopardize the always-precarious position of Judaism by making much in public of any reservations he may have had about Christianity. Nor did he want to make philosophy even more vulnerable than it ordinarily is in the face of accusations of irreligion, if not even of atheism. Such accusations may not seem to matter as much these days as they once did, but times do change. Contemporary casualness about these matters may be misleading.

Furthermore, Mr. Strauss could see that any reservations expressed openly about Christianity would serve, in our circumstances, to call all revelation into question. He did not want to do pious Jews a disservice in this respect. Lest it be thought, however, that it would be a disservice for us now to speak somewhat frankly about the things he preferred to treat in a more guarded fashion, it should be remembered that he himself routinely uncovered many more, and more deeply hidden, things than I for one am capable of doing. Whether what I have to say contributes to an understanding of the “limitations,” and hence of the remarkable range, of this, perhaps the greatest philosophical teacher of our time, remains to be seen.

IV.

The proper relation between political philosophy and revelation in the thought of Mr. Strauss is stated in a most useful manner by Mr. Fortin when he notices the openness of philosophy, on principle, to the possibility of arguments and evidence that may prove decisive against it.

Mr. Fortin’s observations here are nicely anticipated by a comment made, by another of Mr. Strauss’s students, at a St. John’s College memorial service for him in 1973 (Laurence Berns, “Leo Strauss, 1899-1973,” The College, St John’s College, April 1974, p.5):

            The most impressive alternative to philosophy in the life of Leo

Strauss is summed up by the name of a city, Jerusalem, the holy

 city. What if the one thing most needful is not philosophic

wisdom, but righteousness? This notion of the one thing most

needful, Mr. Strauss argued, is not defensible if the world is not

 the creation of the just and loving God, the holy God. Neither

philosophy nor revealed religion, he argued, can refute one

another, for, among  other reasons, they disagree about the very

principles or criteria of proof. Leo Strauss was a Jew, a Jewish

 scholar, and if I know anything about the meaning of the word,

he was a philosopher, but he insisted that strictly speaking there

 is no such thing as Jewish philosophy. This mutual irrefutability

 and tension between philosophy and  Biblical revelation

appeared to him to be the secret of the vitality of Western

 Civilization.  

            One may wonder whether the closing remark in this Berns comment, about the secret of the vitality of Western Civilization, has to be made, for its full force, from a perspective, whether or not Straussian, superior to both philosophy and Biblical revelation. One may wonder as well what the perspective is from which Father Fortin spoke in advising his fellow theologians to take “Leo Strauss’s pioneering work” more seriously. Particularly challenging for anyone trying to place Father Fortin himself is the following sentence in his paper about the vulnerability of early Christianity: “The new religion would have gone the way of the radical sects of late antiquity had it not succeeded in demonstrating its adaptability to the needs of civil society.”

            The deep differences between two ways of life—the way grounded in the Bible and the way grounded in philosophy—are suggested upon comparing characteristic responses to reported sayings of God, the responses by their respective “founding fathers.” Socrates was moved, by a remarkable saying of the Delphic oracle seeming to commend him personally, to inquire into the meaning of what that oracle had said. He had spent much of his life, he said, testing that saying. Abraham, on the other hand, immediately proceeded in response to a dreadful saying by God to take the steps necessary for the sacrifice of the son upon whom so much seemed to depend. There was evidently no inquiry or testing at all on his part on that occasion, however much he himself was being tested.

V.

            To recognize an unbridgeable gulf between philosophy and revelation—a gulf which Abraham’s unquestioning obedience dramatically points up—is not to say that anything goes as revelation. For one thing, philosophy can question various claims of revelation, and has on occasion done so with propriety. Consider, for example, Socrates’ insistence in Plato’s Republic that some of the generally-accepted stories about the gods simply could not be true. One can see in Scripture itself the use of reason to test supposed revelations:   Gideon’s experiments with respect to the dew on the fleece come to mind, as does the ridicule in Isaiah of any worship of a god that one has fashioned for oneself out of a log. (See Judges 6:  36-40, Isaiah 44:  9-20. See also the text accompanying note 50 of Appendix F (“On Beginnings”) in this book, The Bible:  Respectful Readings.)

            A further testing of revelation may be seen in the proposition (as in the work of Thomas Aquinas) that there are even things denied to God Himself, such as being able to make something not to have ever been which has once been. One can imagine as well what the Socrates of Plato’s Euthyphro, who questions in the name of piety what a son is about to do to his perhaps guilty father, would have said to a father about to sacrifice his obviously innocent son.

VI.

            A philosophical critique of the claims of revelation is, then, sometimes possible. It is something of which even the pious man must recognize the occasional legitimacy. In this way, philosophy and revelation collaborate.

            They collaborate as well when revealed religion makes use of philosophy, something that

Mr. Fortin so ably describes Christianity to have done. It was thus, he explains, that Christianity could supply—one may even say, was inspired to supply—its grievous lack of guidance for political action. (Similarly, one could say, philosophy has used religion in support of its moral and political programs:   the many cannot be expected to accept consistently and for the right reason the prescriptions of philosophy.)

            Philosophy can be useful as well in helping revealed religion avoid being trapped by irrelevant scientific developments, as for example with respect to astronomy or to evolution. In addition, philosophy can help theologians hold in check the Dionysian element in their religion: charismatic movements are restrained, and fundamentalist interpretations are corrected. Presumably, the return to classical thought prepared for by Mr. Strauss, and endorsed for theologians by Father Fortin, would have the effect of helping to keep religion sober. Do some Christians sense, however, that such reliance may place an inhibition on the purest form of religion? Do they suspect, indeed, that any Classical thought thus made available to them is apt to use religion rather than be a handmaiden to it, however political philosophy may allow itself to be described?

VII.

            Any well-established religion, it should be expected, is apt to have had exerted upon it over the centuries the sobering influence of nature. And, as Mr. Fortin points out, recourse to political philosophy made Christianity politically responsible in this world. In being thus useful, it should be noticed, political philosophy may pose more of a threat to Christianity than it does to Judaism. Has not Judaism always been more concerned with the things of this world, and hence with worldly wisdom? (See, for another discussion of this matter, appendix F in this book.)

            For this reason, and aside from the question of the place, in one’s view of things, of miracles and of the intervention of God in human affairs, the risk from associating with Classical political philosophy may be greater for Christianity than it is for Judaism. Judaism has always exhibited a greater respect than Christianity for family duties and for political association and its consequences, matters that political philosophy too has traditionally been concerned about. Has not Judaism also had, even if in a concealed way, a greater respect than Christianity for that grasp of nature so vital to political philosophy? In any event, Mr. Strauss himself always made much of the wisdom incorporated in the Mosaic law, as seen in his fondness for Deuteronomy

4: 6 [the Mosaic passage I have used as the epigraph for this paper].

            Strictly speaking, then, it is Christian theology that has both more to learn from Classical political philosophy and more to risk from its revival. The Christian reluctance that Mr. Fortin reports is not without plausible causes, aside from the tendency of theologians today to be decisively moderns. On the other land, the Straussian approach to political philosophy is something the pious Jew can more easily live with, if not even welcome.

            Still, it is hard to believe that Socrates would have responded as Mr. Strauss did to the largely impenetrable Mosaic code. Even the detailed legal code in Plato’s Laws, laid down by a Socrates-like character, is largely accounted for and justified on that occasion. It is also hard to believe that Mr. Strauss, had he not been a Jew, would have been inclined as he was to make as much as he obviously did of Judaism, however much any of us in the West should want to acknowledge and make use of the teachings about righteousness and mercy impressed on us by Scripture.

            To speak as I have ventured to speak here about Mr. Strauss is not only to suggest that he concerned himself considerably (some, but not I, would say, unduly) with certain matters only because he was a Jew, but it is also to suggest that there may have been opinions he held, as a student of political philosophy, that he would not have held or perhaps would not have held quite the way he did, if he himself had not happened to have been a Jew. His Judaism, with its wise righteousness, encouraged him to ignore to the extent that he did the lures of modernity, even as it taught him how to read with great care.

            One is obliged to wonder, of course, what our contemporary opinions might be which the pagan political philosopher might not have held, or might not have held the same way, opinions rooted in Scripture and in elaborations upon Scripture. These opinions may be found among us not only as a result of direct Jewish influence but perhaps even more as a result of Christianity, which is perhaps the most influential consequence in the modern world of Judaism.

            I have suggested where the Biblical influence might manifest itself in Mr. Strauss’s thought. Some might also discern that influence in what Mr. Strauss has had to say, and how, about one’s own, about the naturalness of desperate efforts to preserve one’s self, and consequently about the considerable importance of the doctrine of esotericism (for which there is more than one motive). But I must leave further conjectures about Biblical influences to others, to those who know far better than do I both the work of Leo Strauss and the two great traditions to which he so brilliantly and so imaginatively looked for guidance, the one rooted in the Bible, the other nurtured by political philosophy.

NOTE

            *This paper was prepared for a Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship Panel, Annual Convention, American Political Science Association, Chicago, Illinois, September 1, 1983. The epigraph for this paper is taken from Deuteronomy 4:6, a text drawn on several times in this volume [The Bible: Respectful Readings (Lexington Books, 2008)].

            The application of Leo Strauss’s teaching to contemporary affairs by supposed “Straussians” has aroused considerable controversy in recent years. I had occasion to speak to this issue in the following letter to the editor of June 9, 2003, a letter published in John A. Murley, ed., Leo Strauss and His Legacy: A Bibliography (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2005), p. 854:

Leo Strauss’s daughter has reported that she does not recognize her father in the recent new stories about him as the mastermind behind the neo-conservative ideologues who are said to control American foreign policy today. [See her New York Times article of June 7, 2003, p. A29.] Some of us, who were Mr. Strauss’s students at the University of Chicago, also fail to see him as the reactionary guru that some would evidently like him to be. I recall, for example, what he said to me after I lost my Illinois Bar Admission “loyalty-oath” case in the United States Supreme Court [366 U.S. 82 (1961)]. That is, his two-sentence letter to me, of June 22, 1961, was hardly that of a right-wing ideologue: “This is only to pay you my respects for your brave and just action. If the American Bench and Bar have any sense of shame they must come on their knees to apologize to you.” I suspect that Leo Strauss, upon confronting those Administration adventurists who now claim to find in his teachings support for their presumptuous imperialism, would recall (as he often did) the Dutch grandmother’s advice: “You will be surprised, my son, to learn with how little wisdom this world of ours is governed.”

            Joseph Cropsey, who had been an intimate colleague of Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago, said, upon being asked recently about Mr. Strauss’s “influence on current events” (Dialogo, The University of Chicago, Fall 2007, p. 3):

In public policy, I must say that I would have trouble discerning it. I know that there have been journalists who have criticized Paul Wolfowitz, for example, who was my student in two courses. But he was not primarily a student of Leo Strauss. His main interest was international relations, and I think Albert Wohlsetter was the main influence on his dissertation. I have a lot of trouble understanding how anyone can attribute to Strauss the desire to attack Iraq in order to spread democracy. Of course, Strauss favored democracy. Strauss owed his life and his careers, his success, and everything to this country. The idea that he would be in favor of going to war all over the place in order to spread democracy—I mean, somebody who thought as carefully as Strauss would have been able to think about the situation in Iraq and might very well have had second thoughts about it.

This paper (“Reason and Revelation: On Leo Strauss”) has been published as Appendix A in George Anastaplo, The Bible: Respectful Readings (Lexington Books, 2008), pp. 201-07. See, also, Appendix E, “Leo Strauss and Judaism Revisited,” in Anastaplo, The Bible, pp. 225-32. See, as well, “Glimpses of Leo Strauss, Jacob Klein, and St. John’s College (2009),” in George Anastaplo, The Christian Heritage: Problems and Prospects (Lexington Books, 2010), pp. 361-70. Both of these additional discussions of Leo Strauss are to be posted on http://www.anastaplo.wordpress.com. Compare Julie Englander, “Defending Strauss,” Chicago Reader, August 24, 2007, p. 1.

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