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Feuerbach Symposium

To open these reflections with an unavoidably terrible sentence: Peter Gordon’s review of Carlos Fraenkel’s book Philosophical Religions from Plato to Spinoza in the New Republic is an interesting account of what sounds like an interesting book. Still, the review left me with several questions. In particular, what it leaves out seems as important as what it actually says.

These objections are fairly tentative, since I am not a historian of religion. To a certain extent, I’m offering them because we have a highly educated comments section that could probably help me with my questions.

First : For some reason, either Gordon or Fraenkel have chosen to characterize this project as anti-Straussian —a decision which confuses me, given that Leo Strauss only matters to a handful of people in the first place—but go on to outline a position that is, by their own definition, excessively Straussian (only the philosophers know what religion really represents, while ordinary people mistake its different representations for something real).

Whether or not the characterization of Strauss is accurate is something I’m not really in a position to judge. But why exhume Strauss’ corpse just to bury him again, particularly when you end up undermining yourself?

Second : Something bothersome—a simple search within the article for “Plato” yields, by my count, thirteen results. “Aristotle” yields three. Given that, how are we to make sense of this list:

[Philosophical religion] is a tradition that united pagan thinkers such as Plato with Christians (Origen and Eusebius) and Muslims (Al-F?r?b? and Averroes) and Jews (Philo and Maimonides) in a shared philosophical vision, according to which historically distinctive religions should not be understood in the literal sense.

Well, Averroes and Maimonides and Al-F?r?b? were commenters on Aristotle, so far as I know, and Aristotle is more than a bridge to Plato. Given that what links them , intellectually, is their shared interest in Aristotle, one would naturally expect Thomas Aquinas to put in an appearance here. But instead, we have Origen and Eusebius—whatever philosophical vision is being shared here is being shared in a rather peculiar sense (one that does not involve actual sharing). Aquinas, like Aristotle, is notable by his absence in this article, and is dismissed in a sentence or so.

Not acknowledging the importance of Aristotle lends this whole piece a very odd tint. Part of the reason we no longer have this kind of shared philosophical heritage is because we do not have an Aristotle any longer (aside from, well, Aristotle). I never know what people mean when they say things should not be understood literally, but I’m not sure that what unites these thinkers is the notion that religions are only distinctive by historical accident. I think they are mostly united by, well, Aristotle.

I’m not sure how that moment will come again. There just isn’t somebody out there who has given such a total account of the world (that I know of), and in any case much of the framework built on Aristotle (and Ptolemy) seems to me to have been destroyed. One gets the impression that philosophical religion just went poof, because of some vague Protestant egalitarian error, when the real trouble had to do with the philosophy. Or am I wrong?

(NB: if you want to hire me to be the next Aristotle, Harvard, I come cheap!)

Third : Is it best to focus on universals over particulars? This question is more general, and more about whether or not “philosophical religion” would be a desirable thing. In the end, such a focus seems to leave us with only hollowed-out notions of what we desire. If, as Gordon seems to say, philosophical religion recognizes the shared desire for transcendence among historical religions, it’s still the case that “transcendence” means something different depending on who you ask.

A robust pluralism is (I think) a civic good. It is necessary for true dialogue, as well, and dialogue is (in turn) necessary for philosophy. But I suspect that a totally universalized philosophical religion would be entirely emptied of content, meaning it would spell the end of both philosophy and religion.

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