Thomas Pangle, author of numerous acclaimed studies spanning the entire history of political philosophy from Socrates to today’s various postmodernisms, is arguably the most prominent and accomplished of the many distinguished students of Leo Strauss (1899-1973), himself one of the most influential and controversial figures in postwar American intellectual life. In his important new book, Political Philosophy and the God of Abraham, Pangle ventures well beyond the great books of his discipline to devote himself to the study of the Hebrew Bible, as well as to ancient, medieval, and modern traditions of biblical commentary. His goal is ambitious—nothing less than to reinvigorate what he describes as “the encounter between political philosophy and the Bible” at the highest intellectual level.
Those familiar with Strauss’ work will recognize Pangle’s formulation, which assumes a fundamental tension between philosophical reflection (understood as the attempt to comprehend “the whole” using unassisted human reason) and biblical faith (treated as thoroughgoing submission of one’s mind and heart to God’s law). Pangle, like Strauss, claims that the ineradicable antagonism between the two parties is a fruitful one for both, as each illuminates the human possibility proposed by the other. Yet Pangle diverges from Strauss, who tended to leave his ultimate allegiance somewhat obscure, when he indicates that his primary concern is with showing how reason, on nothing but its own authority, can guide human life to a supremely satisfying end. In other words, Pangle sets out to take biblical religion seriously in order to expose it more effectively as an unsatisfactory alternative to what he describes approvingly as “Socratic rationalism.”
According to Pangle, the en-counter between political philosophy and the Bible is possible because both address a common core of our humanity. Reason and biblical faith agree that a “fully human life can and ought to be guided solely by the manifest Truth.” They also agree that the primary theme of our interest in truth is the question of “justice or righteousness.” As Pangle writes, “It is in regard to the right and the good . . . that political philosophy and scriptural piety have the fullest basis for a convergence,” just as it is their very different responses to moral phenomena that ultimately lead them to fundamental and irreconcilable disagreement.
In order to illuminate this rivalry, Pangle proposes to begin at the beginning, with the book of Genesis. He presents a serious and careful philosophical commentary on the Hebrew text, including a sustained conversation with the most notable authorities of the Jewish and Christian traditions, as well as with modern critical scholarship and philosophical-literary reflection. Pangle’s interlocutors include the Talmud, Maimonides, and Abravanel; Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Milton; Spinoza, Locke, and Bayle; Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Leo Strauss and Leon Kass.
Passing over Pangle’s masterful and engaging discussions of these figures—not to mention his thoughtful and provocative reflections on such important topics as the differing accounts of the origins of the universe in the Bible and Greek philosophy—we find the heart of the book in the chapter on “Creation and the Meaning of Good and Evil.” Pangle there presents with exceptional clarity the classic puzzles surrounding the nature of sin and divine justice in the Bible, and he makes every effort to propose rationally intelligible solutions. For example, Pangle discerns the germ of biblical sin in the serpent’s appeal to Eve’s capacity for envy, which reveals a nascent longing for autonomy that is equivalent to philosophical reason’s “desire to govern one’s own existence on the basis of one’s own knowledge.” As Abravanel argues, by yielding to the rationalistic desire, mankind abandoned the tree of life for the tree of knowledge.
But what is the alternative? Pangle claims that it involves radical obedience, understood as self-conscious submission to God. But, he wonders, is such a way of living “possible, or even conceivable as coherent?” Judging from the highly compressed account presented here, Pangle’s doubts are inspired by a suspicion that God demands the impossible—namely, that human beings knowingly renounce the guidance or rule of reason. As Calvin pointed out, such an act of self-conscious renunciation is most coherently understood as having been made possible by a new kind of cognition or knowledge, revealed by God, that trumps what human beings can discern on their own by the use of reason. But according to Pangle, the decision to accept or reject this revealed knowledge must itself be based on a still more fundamental “grounding knowledge of the utterly trustworthy goodness and justice of God.” However we cut it, belief in God and the decision to obey Him must rest on human knowledge of what is good and true, a knowledge acquired, or at least interrogated, by rational reflection. But once this has been conceded, rationalism, with its insistence on the autonomy of the human intellect, has won the day.
Pangle returns to this theme toward the end of the book, in a chapter titled “Abraham at the Peak.” Abraham’s obedience to God in his willingness to sacrifice his son, the son of the promise, would seem to represent a singularly pure and clear manifestation of biblical righteousness. How are we to understand this obedience? Pangle finds “the deepest and most momentous puzzle of divine justice” to be implicated in the question of whether (as suggested by Hebrews 11:19) Abraham “was rationally calculating” as he set out for Moriah that he would not lose Isaac and the promise he represented. For if he was so reasoning, then “does not the whole drama become rather histrionic”? Either Abraham rationally pursued his own good—in which case, for what was he subsequently rewarded?—or “he was indeed sacrificing everything conceivably good for himself.” But if the latter is the case, did he in another sense understand that by this sacrifice of the good he was “achieving the peak of human existence,” and so seeking the good after all?
On Pangle’s account, biblical faith terminates in the following impasse: Abraham’s “unequaled deed” seems to represent the highest possibility of the human soul, a kind of nobility beyond nobility, a truly transcendent orientation of the mind and heart. But as we rationally scrutinize Abraham’s possible motives, we seem to be left with this uninspiring alternative: either Abraham’s deed is completely unintelligible, arbitrary, groundless, and effectively mad—the act of a man who deliberately does what he knows not to be good for him; or it must be explained in terms of rational and egoistic calculation (in terms of what was good for him). In either case, obviously, the biblical promise of transcendence proves to be a pure illusion.
Or does it? There are, to say the least, reasons to doubt the solidity of Pangle’s position—even, and perhaps especially—on its own terms. Consider his view of the origin and meaning of “philosophy” itself. While biblical piety, says Pangle, is rooted in the patriarchal family, philosophy, by contrast, springs from the ancient Greek city-state’s “radical subordination of . . . most individual goods” to loftier civic ends; in other words, philosophy involves a purification or transcendence of the city’s own purification or transcendence of “corporeal, familial, and mundane needs.” That is, philosophy aspires to a divine self-sufficiency that grows out of, but ultimately leaves behind, civic and personal attachments.
This stands in stark contrast to biblical piety, which Pangle says “remains firmly within the bounds of our commonsense conviction” that moral responsibility is real. But it is not clear that philosophy can afford, any more than the Bible can, to dispense with some form of such a conviction. On Pangle’s own account of philosophy’s human origins, the nobility of philosophy emerges as “the dimly held highest aspiration of the life of the city.” But a world in which moral responsibility has been revealed to be rationally incoherent would seem to lack any ground for nobility, for a sense of “high” and “low.” To the extent that Pangle holds philosophy to be noble, he draws on or relies on opinions derived from prephilosophical moral, familial, and civic life. But the validity of these is denied by philosophy, as Pangle defines philosophy.
Of course another possibility is that Pangle does not view philosophy as noble at all—and that he merely employs an exalted rhetoric to attract people, and especially young people, to the study of it. As their philosophical education proceeds, however, they will ultimately discover that such a philosophy’s highest truth is that the world lacks any basis for judgments of “higher” or “lower”—and hence that the philosopher is merely a hedonist, pursuing the pleasure of autonomous reflection as the highest good.
But what an odd hedonist he is, this modern-all-too-modern Socrates who derives his pleasure from voiding the ethical, political, and religious content of life, savoring above all else his ever-renewed awareness of the groundlessness or incoherence underlying his attachment to other human beings. No wonder Pangle is so eager, not to say desperate, to sustain a sense of philosophy’s seriousness by conjuring a worthy foe to battle. But, alas, like all conjured foes, the biblical piety contained in his book is a mere phantom of the real thing. Having failed to come to terms with the truly monstrous resignation of human goods required by his idea of philosophical autonomy, Pangle blinds himself to the genuine alternative to that idea. As Kierkegaard recognized when he described the “infinite resignation” of philosophy, biblical hope, as represented by Abraham, holds out the promise of holding fast to the beloved (Isaac), even as one prepares to sacrifice him to God.
In the end, Pangle has not thought through either what it would mean to abandon all hope, as his idea of philosophy demands, or to have faith in a God who is “concerned about the least things.” And so he has staged for us not so much a battle of giants about the meaning of existence as a wrestling match between a falsely modest bully and a straw man of his own creation. We might have guessed who would win.
Ralph C. Hancock is Professor of Political Science at Brigham Young University.