Strauss, Spinoza & Sinai:
Orthodox Judaism and Modern Questions of Faith
edited by jeffrey bloom, alec goldstein, and gil student
kodesh, 344 pages, $19.95
Leo Strauss and Islamic Political Thought
by rasoul namazi
350 pages, $99.99
If you ever find yourself wondering how widespread a given philosopher’s influence has been, here is a simple test: Make a label out of his or her last name, and use it to identify yourself at a cocktail party (“I’m a Quinean”). Has your interlocutor even heard the term before?
Of American philosophers within living memory, only three stand much chance of passing this adjectival test: Ayn Rand, John Rawls, and Leo Strauss. Among the three, Strauss holds the further distinction that, even after your cocktail partner has raised her eyebrows and said “A Straussian!,” you still hardly know what she thinks it means.
For Strauss’s name is most widely associated with positions defended, not by himself, but by his students. Your cocktail partner may be associating you with one or the other position on the American regime, on Great Books education, on esoteric writing, or on the morality of the philosophic life—but on these topics, it is much easier to know what various Straussians think than what Strauss himself thought. This distinguishes him from Rand and Rawls, who, convinced that they had each attained unprecedented wisdom about human social life, were never bashful about sharing that wisdom with others. Strauss was constantly pointing away from himself, directing his students and readers toward the wiser and greater men whose books he studied and taught. The Straussian school’s lively intellectual diversity can be traced to the difficulty of pinning down, in Strauss’s enigmatic writings, his own answers to the questions that he insisted were of highest importance. How are we to follow an authority who seems so determined to thwart attempts to treat him as an authority?
Two recent books suggest two very different answers to this question. In fact, they represent nearly the two furthest possible extremes on the spectrum of ways that one might honor the legacy of Leo Strauss. They thus have the advantage, in addition to their intrinsic merits, of pointing us toward a Straussian middle ground that deserves more attention today.
At one extreme is the volume Strauss, Spinoza & Sinai: Orthodox Judaism and Modern Questions of Faith, edited by Jeffrey Bloom, Alec Goldstein, and Gil Student. Here, eighteen Orthodox Jewish scholars offer responses to a single paragraph by Strauss (from the 1962 preface to his Spinoza’s Critique of Religion) about the relation between faith, reason, and the Enlightenment. The format is unusual and refreshing. Few edited volumes can boast chapters so tightly united by a single theme, and even fewer have chapters so well selected to hold the consistent attention of any reader interested in that theme. Readers both within and outside the tradition of Orthodox Judaism will profit greatly from this volume’s engagement with the human questions Strauss raises.
According to the paragraph from Strauss that this volume highlights, Jewish Orthodoxy cannot claim to know that the central tenets of its faith are true, but it can reasonably claim to believe them, for no Enlightenment critique of that faith has succeeded in showing it to be actually false. The tone and context of this statement make clear that Strauss is an outsider to the Orthodoxy whose intellectual consistency he nonetheless defends against its Enlightenment critics. Strauss, Spinoza & Sinai shows a range of different insiders’ reactions to this friendly outsider’s defense of their position.
A common theme in many of the volume's chapters is that Strauss understates the strength of positive arguments for Orthodoxy—whether grounded on the weakness of all seemingly rational objections to faith, or on the powerful considerations (rational and supra-rational) that speak for faith, or on both. Another theme is that Strauss shows little engagement with, and almost no awareness of, the main intellectual traditions of the Orthodoxy on which he confidently pronounces: To take only the most important example, he is no scholar of the Talmud. One interesting disagreement among some contributors to the volume is over whether Strauss falls short of the insights of his own hero, the medieval jurist and philosopher Moses Maimonides, or whether he merely exaggerates a problematic rationalism already present in Maimonides himself.
These critiques of Strauss are all reasonable enough, but they are limited by their authors’ relative lack of interest in Strauss. Only two chapters (by Mark Gottlieb and Joshua Weinstein) engage seriously with any of Strauss’s other writings on all these topics, and as a result they are two of the best chapters. Strauss was not one to ignore appeals to personal religious experience, to a millennia-old oral tradition, or to the richness and nobility of Jewish moral and intellectual history. But as his writings show, he had his own reasons for doubting that such appeals offered (as some of the contributors here believe they offer) an adequate response to the honest questions of a conflicted modern Jew—let alone the “inquisitive but respectful friend or co-worker” whom Bloom’s conclusion rightly suggests religious believers ought to be able to explain themselves to.
Still, Strauss would have agreed with this volume’s authors on at least two crucial points: Maimonides is more interesting than Strauss, and God is much more interesting than Maimonides. At the opposite end of the spectrum, therefore, is Rasoul Namazi’s Leo Strauss and Islamic Political Thought, which achieves the remarkable feat of displaying more interest in Strauss’s commentaries on Islamic philosophers than in those philosophers—let alone in their actual philosophy, let alone in whether that philosophy is true. Namazi’s book is by far the narrowest of the many scholarly monographs on Strauss himself: It discusses only two articles by Strauss (on al-Farabi) along with two sets of his unpublished and fragmentary notes (on Averroes and the Arabian Nights). Although Namazi shows in a helpful introduction how Strauss was driven to study Farabi and the other Islamic falasifa because of their importance for Maimonides, he does not treat Strauss’s published writings on Maimonides, which include extensive discussions of the falasifa.
If one insists on understanding Strauss’s commentaries in isolation from the authors he is commenting on, one will have to fill in the gaps somehow. Namazi’s footnotes show that he is relying on other Strauss scholarship and particularly on Heinrich Meier, the German scholar to whom his book is dedicated. Having been persuaded by Meier that Strauss has little regard for God or for anyone who believes in him, Namazi discovers (for example) that a brief “cf.” reference to Machiavelli is really an esoteric allusion to “the ‘inhuman cruelty’ characteristic of Biblical morality.” He also finds that Strauss’s doubt whether Farabi was a “believing Muslim” is really an unambiguous assertion that Farabi “considered [Islam’s] claims to truth entirely worthless.”
In order to unearth this anti-theological dogmatism, Namazi makes liberal use of hermeneutical tools that will be depressingly familiar to readers of other Straussian scholarship. These include: “Is it possible that . . . ?” “Is it not significant that . . . ?” “Is it also an accident that . . . ?” “Can one speak of . . . ?” “One is tempted to say that . . .” “It might also be helpful to some readers to mention . . .” “Some might claim that it cannot be an accident that . . .” “Still, one wonders whether . . .” “Strauss guides the careful reader towards . . .”
There are certainly passages in Strauss’s later writings that could encourage his students to substitute this kind of silliness for the labor of textual exegesis. As with Socrates’s habit of failing to bathe, not all of a great man’s quirks are worthy of imitation. And at least in his younger writings, Strauss routinely met and surpassed conventional standards of scholarly precision—offering his readers arguments and visible evidence, not winks and nudges with citations to unrelated texts.
Straussians have done most of their best work when they have tried to imitate Strauss at his most scholarly. For example, Namazi’s teacher, Meier, has more than earned his own prominence among Straussians through his tireless labor in compiling the authoritative edition of Strauss’s collected writings. And Namazi’s own book also offers extensive treatments of the literature on Strauss and on Islamic political philosophy, all of which are meticulous, scholarly, and sufficient on their own to make the book a valuable contribution.
Strauss, Spinoza & Sinai and Leo Strauss and Islamic Political Thought represent two extremes that I am inclined to call, if Augustine will forgive me, inquiry into God unto contempt of Strauss and inquiry into Strauss unto contempt of God. It is obvious which of the two Strauss would have preferred. But both have their drawbacks. The missing middle ground is to study under Strauss’s guidance the philosophers who he rightly insisted were superior to himself, and who present the most plausible alternative human answers to the question of God. In the case of the Jewish and Islamic alternatives that these two books discuss, the philosophers in question would be especially the Jewish and Islamic medievals.
Yet despite the encouragement of Strauss’s own encyclopedic footnote references to these medieval thinkers, remarkably few Straussians have studied them. In 1936, Strauss called unsuccessfully for “a close collaboration between Arabists, Hebraists, and historians of philosophy” that would “reconstruct the philosophy of Farabi” and then offer adequate interpretations of Maimonides, as well as of Farabi’s other Jewish and Islamic students. Strauss’s early writings on Maimonides cite promiscuously, not only Farabi, but Abravanel, Albo, Alexander of Aphrodisias, al-Ghazali, al-Kindi, al-Mawardi, al-Razi, al-Tabari, Aristotle, Averroes, Avicenna, the Brethren of Purity, Cicero, Falaquera, Saadia Gaon, Gersonides, Ibn Daud, Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Tibbon, Ibn Tufayl, Narboni, Philo, Plato, and Spinoza—always untranslated, and often in centuries-old editions or unedited manuscripts. If you have read a single word by each of those authors, you are already much closer to catching up with Strauss than I am.
Part of why Strauss’s project on medieval philosophy has hardly materialized is that, in his desperation not to be sent back to Germany in 1938, he landed a job in an American political science department. His students and his students’ students found their fellow political scientists more open to hiring scholars of Aristotle, Hobbes, or the Founders than of Farabi, Maimonides, or Averroes. This was unfortunate for those who shared Strauss’s philosophic interest in the medieval authors who analyzed with unsurpassed clarity our civilizational encounter between philosophy and Biblical faith, and whom he therefore rightly identified as the peak of Western intellectual history.
But the greater difficulty for Strauss’s project has been his own uniqueness. The extraordinary combination of human characteristics that he managed to unite can be glimpsed in a letter he wrote at the age of thirty to his Catholic friend Gerhard Krüger:
I would simply beg you—and [Jacob] Klein—to help me onto my feet. Only one thing was clear to me: that I cannot believe in God. I laid it out for myself as follows: there is an “innate idea of god, common to all human beings”; I can either give or refuse my assent to this idea; I believed that I had to refuse; I had to make clear to myself, why? I had to justify myself before the forum of the Jewish tradition, and without relying on any philosophy-of-history—simply because I would not have considered it defensible to give up, out of carelessness and indolence, something for whose sake my forefathers had taken on themselves absolutely everything imaginable.
This rare set of moral and intellectual passions—ancestral loyalty on the one hand, and on the other, what Plato called “hating above all the lie in the soul”—pushed Strauss into an intensive study of Spinoza, then of Maimonides and his philosophic sources. He eventually arrived at the position that one of his Jewish colleagues attributed to him: “Few men have loved the faith of the fathers with so much austere love as Leo Strauss, who understood it but did not share it.” Perhaps no thirty-year-old atheist in modern history has been so driven to study medieval philosophy. And theists since Strauss, for their part, have been reluctant to seek an outsider’s guidance in understanding their own traditions’ greatest thinkers.
When discussing one of Strauss’s articles on Farabi, Namazi seems to miss the significance of a personal observation that Strauss makes there twice: “Farabi,” says Strauss, “explicitly following Plato, considers conformity with the laws and beliefs of the religious community in which one is brought up, a necessary qualification for the future philosopher.” Strauss knew that he himself lacked that “necessary qualification” for philosophy, as his favorite medieval philosophers understood the term. He spent the rest of his heroic intellectual life trying to make up for the terrible disadvantages imposed on him by his own youthful alienation from Jewish faith and practice. His inability to overcome that alienation could not but diminish his status as a specifically Jewish thinker, and the Strauss, Spinoza & Sinai volume bears eloquent witness to this. Yet Strauss remains an indispensable guide for serious students of medieval philosophy, most or all of whom we can expect will be motivated by the religious faith that he lacked.
I hope that Jewish and Islamic students of philosophy will be able to overcome (as a few already have) the distaste that some of Strauss’s more impious dicta understandably provoke in many thoughtful believers. I also hope that, as they dive into his footnotes and carry on his recovery of their own great medieval forebears, they will be joined by more and more of their Christian colleagues—who, also understandably, find it easier to show indulgence to a Jewish apikores than his own coreligionists do. Farabi himself learned Plato from unorthodox Christians. Christians today could do worse than to learn Farabi (and Plato) from an unorthodox Jew.
Daniel E. Burns is associate professor of politics at the University of Dallas.
Image by RawPixel via Creative Commons. Image cropped.