In a 1932 letter Leo Strauss wrote, “I cannot believe and . . . therefore I search for a possibility to live without faith.” That search, which began in the 1920s, led him from contemporary theological debates and the modern liberal critique of religion to medieval Jewish and Islamic thinkers and back to Plato and Socrates, from whom Strauss learned that “raising the question regarding the right way of life—this alone is the right way of life.”
David Janssens’ Between Athens and Jerusalem: Philosophy, Prophecy, and Politics in Leo Strauss’s Early Thought is the latest in a series of impressive European studies of the life and thought of Leo Strauss. A revised and expanded version of a book published originally in Dutch in 2001, it is a tightly woven and illuminating treatment of Strauss’s intellectual development up to the publication of his book on Hobbes and his migration from Europe to the United States in 1937. Janssens gives an instructive account of the origins of Strauss’s discovery of Socratic philosophy and also helps to explain something that has often puzzled appreciative Christian readers of Strauss: why he devotes so little attention to, and why his students remain for the most part blissfully ignorant of, Christian thought.
Strauss became a Zionist in 1916 at the age of seventeen, and describes himself at that point as a “young Jew, born and raised in Germany, who found himself in the grip of the theologico-political predicament.” Even after he abandons Zionism for its failure to sustain Jewish identity in isolation from religion, he remains preoccupied with the “theologico-political problem.” It is not surprising that Spinoza and Maimonides figure prominently in Strauss’s initial reckoning with Judaism. Spinoza is the great defender of secular reason against the claims of revealed religion. Strauss is impressed with and by the Spinoza project, but he does not think it offers a convincing defense of reason or a decisive refutation of the claims of revelation. The modern attempt to secure a foundation for knowledge renders reason vulnerable to doubts about whether all knowledge can be reduced to scientific rationalism. Strauss asks, “Is Spinoza’s account clear and distinct? . . . Is its clarity and distinctness not due to the fact that Spinoza abstracts from those elements of the whole which are not clear and distinct and which can never be rendered clear and distinct?”
Strauss’s search may appear to be stymied at this juncture, but this is the case only if modernity encompasses all viable intellectual options. That itself is a historicist prejudice, a bias from which Strauss finds liberation by the study of the history of philosophy. The assumption that every text and author is culturally conditioned is itself the result of a specific set of historical assumptions and therefore dubious. This opens up the possibility that perhaps the truth was known once and may well be accessible to us again, even here and now. Under the tutelage of a certain type of reading, historicism is historicized. According to Strauss, “We need history first of all in order to ascend to the cave from which Socrates can lead us to the light; we need a propaedeutic, which the Greeks did not need, namely, learning through reading.” Strauss also expresses the provocative notion—to which we will return below and to which Janssens devotes an entire chapter—of a second cave beneath Plato’s natural cave.
Strauss’s reading of Maimonides, along with other medieval philosophers such as Averroes and Alfarabi, is a pivotal moment in his search to find a way of life distinct from that of religious belief. In contrast to Spinoza’s direct assault on religion, Maimonides’ approach is subtle and prudent. Central to Maimonides’ project and to Strauss’s own reading is the practice of “veiled” writing, which protects philosophy from the uninitiated and from political rebuke even as it “preserves the sharpness” of Socratic questioning. Medieval philosophers thus point backward to Plato, to the originating conception of philosophy as something always threatened but always available to be recovered.
Janssens offers helpful clarification of what Strauss does and does not mean by a “return to” or “recovery of” ancient thought. Strauss does not mean that one can simply bypass modernity. The putting into question of modernity’s project of pure inquiry—its attempt to circumvent and transcend received opinions to arrive at a pellucid intellectual foundation—implies, paradoxically, that the recovery of premodern thought must involve sustained engagement with the various strains of modern thought. Our starting points, our received opinions, are largely modern; unless we understand these opinions, their sources, and their merits, we will not know what is distinctive about antiquity.
The moving back and forth between modern and premodern shows significant differences in the nature of philosophy as practiced in the two eras. Modern “anti-theological ire,” the attempt to trump or refute revelation, transforms philosophy itself into something different from what it was in the premodern era. To compete with the comprehensive claims of revelation—claims that are equally theoretical and practical—philosophy strives to offer a comprehensive, indubitable account of reality and to transform the world so that it is more conducive to human desires. Philosophy seeks, in Descartes’ pithy pronouncement, to render us “masters and possessors of nature.” The late-modern realization is not that this project has failed, but that its success marks the ultimate denigration of man: his subjection to nihilism. Modernity’s “truthfulness from probity,” its exaltation of the courageous confrontation with nihilism, remains entangled with, even as it repudiates, Biblical morality. Instead of “dogmatic atheism,” Strauss proposes “unbelieving eros.” According to Strauss, this is the true Socratic philosophy: “raising the question regarding the right way of life—this alone is the right way of life.”
The conception of philosophy as a life of irresolvable inquiry is a corrective to the audacity of the modern project. Still, Strauss makes large claims on behalf of classical philosophy, which is rooted in the apprehension of the difference between nature and custom or law and which takes its orientation, not from time and history, but from eternity.
The sole weakness of Janssens’ meticulous reconstruction of Strauss’s early thought is that he rarely asks questions Strauss himself does not ask, particularly questions about Strauss’s own conception of philosophy. Strauss’s conception does, however, leave us with questions. The inquiring conception of philosophy means that philosophical reason is essentially discursive; it neither starts from, nor culminates in, any kind of contemplative insight into truth or nature. This reticence raises the question of what sort of content could be given to the meaning of nature that functions so prominently in Strauss’s writings. Moreover, the discursive and inherently temporal activity of philosophy is an odd fit for Strauss’s claim that philosophy is not about time and history but about eternity. At a minimum, these are matters that call for more a probing analysis.
But there is an even more important issue on which Janssens barely touches. As we have seen, a straightforward return to Socrates is not possible. The modern Socratic philosopher must confront revelation. Although Strauss devotes a great deal of attention to Jewish and Islamic thought, he spends considerably less time on Christian thought. Yet the self-destructive transformation of philosophy in modernity has precisely to do with its confrontation with the revelation of the New Testament and Christian theology. Given such adverse effects on philosophy, it might be prudent for the philosopher to avoid any sustained entanglement with Christianity.
Strauss does not avoid Christianity completely, however. He notes the differences between mythological religions and revealed religions and, among revealed religions, between those based in law (Judaism and Islam) and those based in faith and doctrine (Christianity). If he does not engage Christian truth claims in any detail, he does offer occasional, telling comments. Indeed, his strategy seems to be one of quiet denigration. How so?
As Janssens astutely points out, Strauss treats revelation as the source of a “second cave,” an artificial cave beneath Plato’s natural cave. Within that second cave, Christianity would seem to obfuscate, rather than illumine, the contest between philosophy and revelation. First, even before the modern substitution of right for law, St. Paul’s re-crafting of the law as written on the heart obscures the true character of law (nomos). Second, because of Christianity’s shift away from law, Christian thinkers propose a doctrine or way of life—a pursuit of wisdom, open to all—that encompasses philosophy and renders the teaching of wisdom public. Christianity thus confuses the few and the many, private philosophy and public politics. In this view, Christianity would seem to constitute a cave beneath the cave beneath the cave.
Following the lead of Heinrich Meier’s Leo Strauss and the Theologico-Political Problem, Janssens suggests, at the very end of his book, that Strauss may have considered it a necessary task of philosophy to refute or encompass revelation, including Christianity. Janssens refers to Strauss’s attempt—in the recently published 1948 lecture “Reason and Revelation”—at a genealogy of the development of revelation out of mythic religion all the way to the notion of incarnation. It is hard to know what to make of that lecture or of the argumentative force of genealogy.
This much is clear: Strauss’s reading of modern philosophy as decisively shaped by “anti-[Christian] theological ire” and his own occasional concession of the need for a more direct consideration of Christian claims render dubious the claim that the only, or even the most important, debate is “between Athens and Jerusalem.” It might rather be, as Pierre Manent has intimated, between the two Romes: the Rome of the emperors versus the Rome of the martyred popes; the Rome of Cicero versus the Rome of Augustine.
If recent work on Strauss, including that of Janssens, underscores the enduring importance of theology, it also highlights how much work remains to be done.
Thomas S. Hibbs is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and dean of the honors college at Baylor University.