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Persecution and the Art of Writing, by Leo Strauss

The Philosophers’ Hidden Truth
Persecution and The Art of Writing.
by Leo Strauss.
The Free Press. Glencoe, Illinois. 204 pp. $4.00.

 

“But this much I can say about all those who have written and will write saying that they know the nature of the subject which is my most serious interest … in my opinion it is impossible for any of these people to know anything about the matter. For there is no treatise of mine on these things nor will there ever be. . . .” So wrote Plato in his Seventh Letter, and the import of his words is stunning. Is there really no treatise by him on that which is his “most serious interest”? What, then, are we to make of his Dialogues, which fill so many volumes and are regarded as the original source of Western philosophy?

It is to the answering of this question, and not only with regard to Plato but also as it affects all pre-Enlightenment thinkers of significance, that Professor Leo Strauss—distinguished occupant of the Charles Merriam chair of political science at the University of Chicago and guest professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Institute on Theology—is devoting himself. It is his thesis that few, if any, of the Great Books in philosophy and political philosophy written before the French Revolution inaugurated the era of journalism can simply be “read,” no matter how vigorously the student (or the instructor) is exhorted to do so and no matter how earnestly he applies himself. They have to be studied, and in a special way; for if they are truly great, it is probably their intention to conceal as well as to reveal, and they do not yield their secrets easily. In other words, the Great Books contain, besides their exoteric teachings as piously summarized in textbooks, esoteric doctrines reserved only for the most intelligent and perceptive. It must be admitted that this sounds rather preposterous— but only until one has read Professor Strauss, after which it appears astonishingly plausible.

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The reason why these books were written this way is twofold, and pertains, on the one hand, to the relation of the philosopher to the ruling powers of his age, on the other, to his relation to the mass of men who were ruled.

The philosopher’s relation to the ruling powers of his age, before the emergence of a secular, liberal society, made it the part of wisdom for him to be exceedingly discreet on all matters pertaining to state or church, lest he experience the royal hospitality of the dungeon or the ecclesiastical favor of the stake. This is a situation which, in the totalitarian societies of our own day, is becoming increasingly familiar to us; and Professor Strauss indicates how a philosopher may operate under such conditions:

“We can easily imagine that a historian living in a totalitarian country, a generally respected and unsuspected member of the only party in existence, might be led by his invesligations to doubt the soundness of the government-sponsored interpretation of the history of religion. Nobody would prevent him from publishing a passionate attack on what he would call the liberal view. He would of course have to state the liberal view before attacking it; he would make that statement in the quiet, unspectacular, and somewhat boring manner which would seem natural; he would use many technical terms, give many quotations and attach undue importance to insignificant details. . . . Only when he reached the core of the argument would he write three or four sentences in that terse and lively style which is apt to arrest the attention of young men who love to think. . . . His reasonable young reader would for the first time catch a glimpse of the forbidden fruit. The attack, the bulk of the book, would consist of virulent expansions of the most virulent utterances in the holy book or books of the ruling party.”

This sort of thing is rather self-evident once it is pointed out; even if there are inevitable disagreements over particular cases—for instance, whether or not Descartes’ incorporation of the Deity in his philosophic system was a stratagem—it may still be conceded that we cannot always take at face value the words of a writer who lived, or lives, under a despotism.

What is far from self-evident, and this is at the heart of Professor Strauss’s argument, is that, in the ages preceding the Enlightenment, the serious thinker freely and deliberately—as an act of “social responsibility,” as it were—so censored his own writings that they would mislead the frivolous reader, the “common man.” In those times, the man of learning had cautious, when not downright pessimistic, views about the possibility and desirability of popular education. For him, the abyss between the “wise” and the “vulgar” was an inescapable fact of human nature, and he assumed that there are truths that no decent man should pronounce in public because of their unsettling effect on the social order. Consequently, he set out quite deliberately to deceive the majority of his readers.

It would be an error to regard this practice as but the expression of aristocratic prejudice. This point of view is not even necessarily opposed to democracy (though it is definitely opposed to democratic, or liberal, ideologies); Spinoza, who was a democrat in politics, wrote ad caytum vulgi —“according to the capacity of the vulgar.” Nor is it irreconcilable with the reforming spirit, as we see in the case of Montesquieu who, in the words of d’Alembert, “having often to present important truths whose direct and explicit statement might be injurious and without benefit, had the prudence to disguise them; and, by this innocent artifice, hid them from those who might be harmed, without their being lost to the wise.” Indeed, the thinker who acted thus could and did plead a genuine, benevolent concern for humanity: popular opinions had to be accepted in order that the unenlightened might be slowly moved toward an approximation of the truth, in the measure that they could tolerate it.

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Obviously, all this implies some basic premises about the connection between philosophy and life—premises which Professor Strauss is not too shy to affirm, though he has not yet, in his written work, tried to establish them by argument. One premise is that reason is unalterably critical of, and opposed to, revelation; the philosopher cannot accept the supernatural fiat, but must explain all phenomena by “the nature of things.” Another premise is that no civil order can be stable or enduring unless it is founded on a common assent to a revealed religion; for society needs a code of morality, and reason (that is, philosophy) cannot provide any such specific code, any detailed spiritually coercive index of rights and wrongs. Reason, by its very essence unable to supply any categorical imperatives for the life of action, can only lay down general rules which are minimum requirements for a tolerable social existence— and one of these requirements is a “revealed” moral code such as reason itself cannot provide. A third premise is that philosophy itself, before modern times, assumes the superiority of the contemplative life of the individual to the practical life of the crowd, but it also takes it for granted that most men are not capable of ascending from the cave of the commonplace to the sunlight of the vita contemplativa, and therefore have need for a practical guidance that only revelation can give them.

So it is that, while philosophy is abstractly opposed to revelation, yet philosophers must support it. That this is what philosophers have thought and done, is the recurrent theme of Professor Strauss’s essays.

But this deception by the philosophers would be self-defeating if it were known and talked about. It must be kept secret, except from a few disciples and potential disciples who can, in their turn, be trusted to dissimulate expertly. How this is accomplished Professor Strauss discovers in his investigation of “the art of writing,” an investigation which is really an exercise in the art of reading. Does a close scrutiny of the Platonic dialogues discover that they are conversations between a superior man (usually Socrates) and one or more inferior men? And is it not also to be noted that even where two philosophers are present, they do not talk to one another? That, for Professor Strauss, is a significant clue to the effect that Socrates’ opinions are not identical with his speech, that the conversational setting of each dialogue, and of every statement within each dialogue, must be taken into account if we would know what Socrates really believed. Such a textual analysis will disclose how Socrates managed the key problem of philosophy, namely the relation between philosophy (the realm of theoretical truth) and politics (the realm of practical moral guidance), which is necessarily complex, obscure, and dangerous.

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Professor Strauss came upon this problem in his studies of medieval Jewish and Islamic thought, which—in distinction from Christian thought of the time-put a greater stress on the importance of political philosophy for the whole of philosophy. For Jews anil Moslems. what was revealed was not Faith but Law, no creed or dogma hut a comprehensive order of social life. Whereas in Christianity sacred doctrine was theological, and philosophy was needed for its study, in Judaism and Islam sacred doctrine was legal in character and philosophy was inherently subversive of it, for it interposed a question mark in the path of full anil instant obedience. The Talmud recognized this fact when it said flatly: “He who reflects about four things—about what is above, what is below, what is before, what is behind—it would be better for him not to have come into the world.” Philosophy, then, in the Jewish anil Moslem worlds was forced to develop that discretion which it had in classical antiquity, and which Professor Strauss regards as its true mark of authenticity. It is not without interest that he has never thought it worth his while to write a single essay on a Christian thinker, preferring to limit himself to the Creeks, the medieval Jews and Moslems, and the secular moderns (Hobbes, Rousseau, etc.); and one cannot but suspect that for Professor Strauss, Christianity is an irresponsible and unstable mixture of doctrines.

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The bulk of Persecution and the An of Writing is devoted to three long essays on “the art of reading” Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, Judah Halevi’s Kuzari, and Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. All three previously appeared in Jewish scholarly publications, and have made a deep impression on Professor Strauss’s fellow experts. They are so closely reasoned, so brilliant in their analysis of details of style anil argument, that it is impossible fairly to summarize them. Nevertheless, in order to have a glimpse of Professor Strauss at work, it might be worthwhile here to give some abbreviated and Simplified illustrations of his method, adapted from his essay on Maimonides. What is the subject matter of the Guide for the Perplexed? When we try to answer this simple question, we run up against a paradox. On the one hand, Maimonides states that his book is a defense of Judaism against philosophy, which for him meant Aristotelianism; he expressly states that he is not writing a philohical book, and that he has excluded all of physics and most of metaphysics from his purview. On the other hand, he gives as his intention the explanation of various Biblical words, behind whose literal meaning there hides a secret meaning; and the highest secrets of the Bible, again according to Maimonides, arc ma’aseh bereshit (the Talmudic phrase for physics—literally. the “story of the beginning”) and ma’aseh merkabah (the Talmudic phrase for metaphysics—literally, the “story of the chariot” in Fzekiel).

It is possible. to be sure, that Maimonides was merely confused. It is also possible, however. that the conclusion is not accidental. In favor of this latter alternative are two explicit statements of Maimonides. in one of which he warns the reader that “the diction of this treatise has not been chosen by haphazard,” and in the other of which he says that “you will not demand from me here anything except chapter headings, and even those headings are. in this treatise, not arranged according to any sequence whatsoever, but they arc scattered and intermingled with other subjects the explanation of which is intended.” The reference to “chapter headings” is a significant hint that the Guide is a philosophical book, after all; for the Talmud prohibits the teaching of ma’aseh merkahah (metaphysics) to more than one disciple, who must show promise .of wisdom, and even then allows the teaching of only the “chapter headings.” This hint is reinforced by the fact that the Guide is written in the form of letters to a, favorite pupil, one Joseph.

Professor Strauss resolves the paradox by showing that the purpose of the Guide is to reveal the identity of the philosophy of Aristotle with the secrets of the Bible, and that Maimonides’ “defense” of the Law against philosophy takes the form of proving that the “secret teaching” of the Law, from which the Commandments are derived and by which they can be justified, is exactly the same as the teaching of Aristotle. Thus, for Maimonides the Bible is an esoteric book, and the disorder of his Guide is a polished reflection of the intentional disorder of Scripture, whose “revealed” truths are but ‘ popular and imaginative expressions of rational truths as these were demonstrated by Aristotle.

To make one’s way through the disorder of the Guide, one has to imitate Maimonides’ way through the disorder of Scripture. That is, one has to read the Guide as Maimonides read the Bible, which is the way that Orthodox Jews have always read these “books”—realizing that any word has in it a world of meaning and that the composition as a whole is a vast and mysterious web of meaning. Every detail in the Guide is important. When Maimonides “quotes” some classifications of the Commandments, or some enumerations of opinions concerning providence or creation, which he had previously made in his codification of the Law, the Mishneh Torah, it may be found upon close examination that the quotation is inaccurate in a slight but significant way. Similarly, the first word of every chapter must be related to thefirst words of the preceding and succeeding chapters, to see if a (or rather, what kind of) pattern is being suggested. Particular attention must also be paid to contradictory statements, even if, or rather especially when, one is repeated assertively many times and the other is tossed off but once, in a casual way; when Maimonides repeatedly insists upon the necessity of observing the entire Law, and then at one point, in a few passing words, denies the obligatory character of the whole sacrificial legislation—that is no minor matter!

The fruitfulness of this procedure may be gathered from the following instances which Professor Strauss gives of Maimonides’ “art of writing”:

  1. On four occasions, and each time with approval, Maimonides quotes an expression of Aristotle to the effect that the sense of touch is a disgrace to us. But two words are omitted from Aristotle’s original expression which, in its complete text, asserts that the sense of touch is popularly considered a disgrace. The instructed reader, who knew his Aristotle, would recognize that Maimonides was here uttering a conventional opinion, one that prized supersensual truths—i.e. “revelations”—over the truths of experience and reason. And this reader would observe, if he read closely, that there are other passages in the Guide which deny that there is any difference in dignity between the senses or that supersensual truths are possible. He would also be considerably provoked by the fact that one of these misquotations from Aristotle is contained in a passage that gives Maimonides’ general definition of prophecy, and that this definition of prophecy is given in a conditional sentence, whose grammatical nature is obscured by its being very long and by its containing a lengthy parenthesis.
  2. Maimonides vigorously declares that the immortality of the soul and the bodily resurrection of the dead are cardinal principles of Jewish faith. But when, in the Guide, he takes up the question of whether there is a Divine Providence and tries to answer the philosophical objections to it, he makes no use of either of these principles which are so crucial to the religious point of view. In contrast, elsewhere in the Guide he interprets the phrase in Deuteronomy 8:16, “The good at thy latter end,” to mean merely the fortitude acquired by the Jews from their desert wanderings. The sagacious reader would also notice that the problem of divine justice is discussed after Maimonides has completed his discourse on physics and metaphysics, and he would infer that for the author this was not a subject for theoretical knowledge but a practical matter, i.e., it had to do with morals and government, with “political philosophy.”
  3. The potential sage will be struck by Maimonides’ use of the first person plural and singular. When the author defends “our” opinion (i.e., the opinion of the community of believers in the Law) against the philosophers, he expresses conventional beliefs. When he says “my” opinion, he is pointing to his secret teaching. The fact that he calls the Mishneh Torah “our great book,” and the Guide “my treatise,” is his way of distinguishing between his exoteric and esoteric writings. Indeed, this was understood by one of the medieval commentators on Maimonides, who interpreted the quotation from Proverbs 22:17 at the beginning of the Guide to read: “Bow down thine ear, and hearken to the words of the sages, [but] apply thine heart unto mine opinion.”

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It Must be emphasized that the above is only a superficial and coarsened version of an essay on the Guide that is fifty-seven pages long, and whose argument requires a special effort by the reader in order to be followed. Professor Strauss writes in a bold and masculine style; his sentences are unambiguous; his paragraphs are lucid; but his reasoning is so close and subtle that one often finds that the thread has been lost. In this respect, reading Professor Strauss is not too different an experience from reading Maimonides.

No doubt, there will be scholars who will respectfully dispute Professor Strauss on just about every point. They will find, as many already know, that he is a most formidable opponent. And if in time the victory goes to Professor Strauss, he will have accomplished nothing less than a revolution in intellectual history, and most of us will—figuratively, at least—have to go back to school to learn the wisdom of the past that we thought we knew. It is fortunate for us that the lessons will be rather more exciting, and more daring in their implications, than we remember them. And it is a consolation of sorts to know in advance that, for those of us who fail to learn this art of reading, provision has been made.

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