March 14, 2007

FREELOADING:

A Skeptical Friend of Democracy: a review of Daniel Tanguay's "Leo Strauss: An Intellectual Biography" and Eugene Sheppard's "Leo Strauss and the Politics of Exile" (STEVEN B. SMITH, March 14, 2007, NY Sun)

Daniel Tanguay's "Leo Strauss: An Intellectual Biography" (Yale, 215 pages, $30) and Eugene Sheppard's "Leo Strauss and the Politics of Exile" (Brandeis, 130 pages, $24.95) both try to answer the question of how a young German Jew became the political philosopher we know as Leo Strauss. Messrs. Tanguay, a professor of philosophy at the University of Ottawa, and Sheppard, a professor of modern Jewish history at Brandeis, each gives his own account of how Strauss became Strauss. Rather than treating Strauss's mature thought as something that arrived fully formed the way Mozart's music was viewed in the film "Amadeus," each is taken with a concern for Strauss's developmental history and how his distinctive ideas arose out of a confrontation with the intellectual currents of Zionism, existentialism, and political theology that marked his youth.

Mr. Tanguay's study provides a systematic interpretation of the theologico-political problem in Strauss's thought. Originally published in French, this work is brought to life in a highly readable translation by Christopher Nadon. It is likely to remain an indispensable guide to the study of Strauss for a long time to come. [...]

Strauss's first two books, "Spinoza's Critique of Religion" (1930) and "Philosophy and Law" (1935), were scholarly efforts come to terms with the existential situation of German Jewry. However it was not until his serious engagement with the great Jewish and Islamic philosophers of the Middle Ages -- Maimonides and Farabi -- that Strauss came to see this dilemma not merely as a local problem, but as a human and universal drama. The Medieval Enlightenment, as Strauss called it, was premised on the belief that there is a permanent and irreconcilable chasm between philosophy and the revealed law. This insight represents the "Farabian Turn" -- so named after the 10th-century Arabic philosopher -- that shaped Strauss's mature thought.

Central to Strauss's understanding of the Medieval Enlightenment was the claim that revelation is the medium of the moral and political life of the community. No community, not even the modern liberal state, can entirely escape theology. Philosophy must therefore pay its respects to religion by concealing its deepest and most disturbing truths by adopting a rhetoric of piety and obedience to the law. The model of this kind of "noble rhetoric" can be found in Plato. It was in Farabi's interpretation of Plato that Strauss first discovered the famous doctrine of the "double truth" to which he gave expression in his famous 1941 essay "Persecution and the Art of Writing."

Like every reader of Strauss, Mr. Tanguay wants to know whether Strauss's recovery of esoteric writing was intended purely as a historical insight or whether he incorporated the techniques of Plato and Farabi into his own writing. "Why did Strauss," Tanguagy asks, "who lived all his life in democratic regimes where freedom of expression is guaranteed by law, feel the need to employ an art of writing that is justified in part by fear of persecution?"

Strauss did not live in fear of persecution; he was not a paranoid. But his adoption of this "Farabian" rhetoric was his way of protecting his adopted homeland from the skepticism that is the mark of all true philosophy. Strauss's use of a rhetoric of discretion was his way of showing respect for democracy.


One of the most fascinating aspects of Straussianism is that, as much as they hate him, it is the American secular Left that is most Straussian, theoretically rejecting the Revelation that the Founding depends on but accepting it in practice.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 14, 2007 7:59 PM
Comments

"Why did Strauss," Tanguagy asks, "who lived all his life in democratic regimes where freedom of expression is guaranteed by law, feel the need to employ an art of writing that is justified in part by fear of persecution?"

In Persecution and the Art of Writing, he suggests that ideas themselves are dangerous. Some so-called East Coast Straussians read that to mean that only philosopher-elites (which, unsurprisingly, means them) are capable of handling such danger properly.

*shrug*

It's kind of a kooky little club in some ways.

Posted by: kevin whited at March 15, 2007 8:25 AM
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