Saturday, July 24, 2010

Strauss and Reason vs. Revelation

There has been a lot of discussion about Leo Strauss lately in the comments section of this blog so I decided to do a post on a part of this University of Chicago Press excerpt of the book Reading Leo Strauss by Steven B. Smith. The following jumped out to me because it focuses on the reason vs. revelation debate that is very famililar to this blog:

"The great theme of Strauss’s life work—what he himself referred to as “the theme of my investigations”—is the theologico-political problem, a term he drew from his early studies of Spinoza. At the center of the theologico-political problem is a choice or conflict between two comprehensive and apparently irreconcilable alternatives: revelation and reason, or as he refers to them metaphorically, Jerusalem and Athens. The difference between Jerusalem and Athens is not simply a philosophical or theological problem; it is at heart a political one. It is a matter of authority and who holds ultimate authority. Does final authority rest with the claims of revelation and all that it implies or with one’s autonomous human reason as the most fundamental guide to life?
Yet while Strauss sometimes presents Jerusalem and Athens as two incompatible alternatives between which one must choose, he elsewhere presents them as two limbs of the tree of knowledge that have mutually nourished and sustained one another. It is the dialectical tension between these two that has provided the “core” or “nerve” of the Western political tradition. Indeed, Strauss shows that the theologico-political problem is more than just a function of civilizations touched by the great monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It extends as far back as Socrates, the first political philosopher, who was sentenced to death by the city of Athens for corrupting the young and disbelieving the gods of the city. From the outset, the claims of philosophy have been at odds with the ancestral laws of the city and its interpreters. The conflict between Jerusalem and Athens was already something that took place, figuratively speaking, within the heart of historical Athens. It is a problem conceivably coeval with humanity itself.
The conflict between Jerusalem and Athens is, however, more than an extended metaphor for the conflicting claims of revelation and reason. Jerusalem meant for Strauss the spiritual and historical homeland of Judaism and the Jewish people. Strauss was a German Jew who grew up during the final years of Wilhelmine Germany and who came to adulthood during the Weimar Republic, before leaving Germany for good at the onset of the Hitler period. His earliest writings dealt almost exclusively with Jewish themes and Zionist theory. He described himself as having been “converted” to political Zionism at the age of seventeen, and he was later able to write that the establishment of the state of Israel procured “a blessing for all Jews everywhere” whether they realized it or not. The Zionism advocated by Strauss was not of the messianic or redemptivist kind. He strongly opposed the view that the establishment of the Jewish state could provide a solution to the Jewish Question. He once enigmatically referred to the Jewish people and their fate as “the living witness for the absence of redemption.” The establishment of the Jewish state was rather a political necessity forced on the Jews not only for the sake of their collective survival, but for the sake of Jewish self-respect.
The question for any student of Strauss’s work is where he stood on the theologico-political problem. Was he a citizen of Jerusalem or Athens? As the studies in this work indicate, there is no simple answer to this question. Strauss taught sacred texts as though they were philosophical works and philosophical works as if they were sacred texts. His careful readings have often been called “Talmudic,” generally by people who know little of Talmud, and sometimes “kabalistic” by those who know even less of Kabala. What is true is that he often saw things that more conventional readers ignored. In an essay on Thucydides he emphasized the role of piety and “the gods,” concluding with the question quid sit deus (what does God mean?). In an article on Genesis he could treat the opening chapters of the Bible as if they were a companion to Aristotle’s Physics.
Strauss taught his readers to listen carefully and to take seriously the claims of Jerusalem, especially at a time when the modern social sciences were treating religion as if it were some atavistic holdover from a dark antedeluvian past. The Enlightenment’s “Napoleonic” attack upon revelation, best expressed in Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise, was beaten back by successive waves of counter-Enlightenment theology and the call for a return to orthodoxy. The rationalist’s attempt to overthrow faith is self-refuting, as it rests on a faith in reason that reason itself cannot justify. Nietzsche’s announcement of the “death of God” must be considered at best premature. But neither did Strauss’s critique of the Enlightenment lead to an endorsement of Jerusalem. “The victory of orthodoxy through the destruction of rational philosophy was not an unmitigated blessing,” he wrote. The challenge was not to declare a winner in the struggle, but to remain open to the claims of each and the challenge of each."

Interesting thoughts here for sure.

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