Jew & Philosopher:
The Return to Maimonides in the Jewish Thought of Leo Strauss

278 pages,
ISBN: 079141566X

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Let Me Not to the Marriage of TrueMinds
by Norman Doidge

Consider these "matrimonial" arrangements: the State and Religion can be fused, as in a theocracy; or they can be two complementary parts of a dual whole, as in certain forms of constitutional monarchy; or the two can be seen as separated, and perhaps even suing for divorce.
Despite the emphatic opening reference to the supremacy of God in our constitution, there is ample evidence that Religion and State in today's liberal democracies are locked into a kind of perpetual trial separation. Now, when a couple is undergoing a trial separation, the most natural question to ask is, "Are the partners as ably independent as they had hoped to be? Are they floundering, or are they liberated?"
Applied to the case of State and Religion, the "practical" question might be reformulated as this: "Are the Western liberal democracies as morally independent of Western religions as they had hoped to be?" In other words, have the intellectuals who lead opinion in our liberal democracies really broken free of revealed religion, and have they found their own apartment of happiness, having learned to support themselves on their own solid foundations, through a morality based strictly or solely on reason?
In our largely secular society, the temptation is to answer these questions "practically", i. e., not from the point of view of religion or even philosophy, but from the point of view of our day-to-day lives. This usually amounts to reducing religion-and for that matter philosophy-to the role of, at best, a kind of mentor for morals. But this reduction may beg a decisive question.
Before we can conclude whether a civil society is functioning successfully, that society has to be examined on its capacity to respond, or to give opportunity to its citizens to respond, to the largest questions about mankind's place in the cosmos as a whole. It is religion and philosophy that speak to these transcendent concerns. Perhaps nothing will strike the practically-minded as so highfalutin as this thought, but the most practical of men and women are hard-pressed to give a coherent answer to the most basic questions of meaning and purpose in human existence. Lacking this larger perspective, they are even hard-pressed to give a coherent answer to some more immediate questions, such as why practical men and women should behave in a moral way when it doesn't seem practical.
Kenneth Hart Green's new book on the philosopher Leo Strauss (1899-1973) will be must reading for anyone troubled by these sorts of reflections. Green is a professor of religion at the University of Toronto, and this book shows him to be a rising star. Green stresses that Strauss made "the theological-political question", as Strauss called it (following Spinoza), the abiding centre of his philosophic reflections. In other words, Strauss insisted that there is always a relationship, spoken or unspoken, between our view of humanity's place in the cosmos, and our day-to-day political life and morality. Strauss convincingly argued that those who maintain that we can suspend inquiry about where we stand in the cosmos-that we can, for all practical purposes, "get on with our day-to-day business"-are deceiving themselves. Some kind of unexamined, usually dogmatic, assertion about "the whole" and the extent to which it can be known, is hovering above and always influencing us.
The twentieth century began, in many quarters at least, with an apparently certain, rigorously scientific, answer to the question of humanity's place in the whole. A liberalism or a liberal democracy founded squarely on science was thought to have sufficient force to maintain civil society without the supporting morality of religion or its view of the cosmos. Religious morality seemed to be the unnecessary relic of a more superstitious age. The evil that had been done in the name of religion was of sufficient magnitude to persuade turn-of-the-century Johns and Yokos to "Give Atheism A Chance." But then there emerged, alongside and even out of liberal democracy, equally confident, atheistic, non-liberal movements and societies. "Scientific socialism" and "scientific racism", the staggering and unprecedented evil perpetrated by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, brought into radical question the high hopes for scientism and atheism as firm grounds for decent societies. Mid-century thinkers began to wonder whether the restraining force of religious morality, and the humbling inspiration of trans-human sources of the sublime, were not necessary limits on human arrogance and hubris.
Long before these developments were apparent to many, including many philosophers, Strauss (as Green reads him) in essence predicted the types of problems that would face a liberal democracy as a scientistic self-understanding began to influence its political life. Already in the 1920s, Strauss was conducting thought experiments as to what kind of relations an enlightened liberal democracy, and, indeed, philosophy or rationalism as such, could and should have with revealed religion. It was Strauss's genius to realize that this kind of "theological-political question" was of sufficient seriousness to require a lifetime of reflection.
In Green's reading, Strauss saw clearly that relativism is a proclivity inherent in liberalism, and that eventually this proclivity might cause the foundations of liberal democracy (which Strauss deeply appreciated) to crumble. Strauss found the deepest modern philosophic source of relativism in Thomas Hobbes, the philosophic founder of the idea of rights-based liberal politics. Hobbes argued that man is a hedonistic creature; what gives an individual pleasure he calls good. But what he calls good is always changing from one day to the next. Good and evil are merely the objects of any man's appetite or desire. "For these words of Good, Evill, and Contemptible, are ever used with relation to the person that useth them: There being nothing simply absolutely so; nor any common Rule of Good and Evill, to be taken from the nature of the objects themselves, but from the Person of the man" (Leviathan, chapter 6). Since there is nothing good but that thinking makes it so, and since thinking changes, the most we can speak of is "apparent Good". Hence the best we can do is to provide ourselves with the maximum possible power and liberty to pursue the changing, apparent good. The task of political philosophy becomes an analysis of the most rationally effective way to maximize and distribute power. Strauss saw early on that a society based on such principles might not be able inculcate sufficient civic virtue in its citizens to sustain democratic self-government, but also that it might not be able to give itself an adequately inspiring account of its own goodness. In response to this problematic, Strauss returned to the study of the ancients, becoming known as the scholar who almost single-handedly resurrected the study of pagan Greek, or decidedly non-Jewish, political philosophy, with its classical republican ideals of citizenship.
But that is not where Strauss's reflections began. Green, in this somewhat unorthodox book, brings to the fore the early Strauss, and adds richly to our understanding of how he developed as a thinker, showing how much of his thought about the theological-political question was organized by his reflections on the great giant of Jewish mediaeval literature: the physician, philosopher, and rabbi Moses Maimonides (1135-1204).
Strauss found his way to the physician-philosopher Maimonides because he appeared to offer a kind of remedy to the "crisis of modernity" (another key Straussian phrase). As Strauss saw the situation, the Enlightenment, inspired by Bacon, Hobbes, Spinoza, and others, had carried the day historically with its promise to use science to make mankind master and owner of nature-and, eventually, master of human nature. Scientific and political progress would lead to peace and "commodious living" (Hobbes's phrase). But to "master nature" meant to abandon the idea of an eternal or unchanging nature, and an eternal or unchanging truth. It meant abandoning the natural world-view shared by both the ancient Greeks and the Bible. The Enlightenment thinkers paved the way towards seeing human nature not as unchanging, but as having a history; and even truth was more and more transformed into mere historical "truth", into truth in quotes, into ideology or myth that varies with time and place. This later view, called historicism, is perhaps the single most influential idea of our time. But Strauss saw that such an understanding was deadly to the Enlightenment itself. Like folklore's fool, sitting on a branch that he is sawing off for firewood, the Enlightenment was undermining itself. For if all interpretations are merely determined by time and place, the "Enlightenment interpretation" is just one historically conditioned interpretation among many. And if it was merely one interpretation among many, it could not really claim to have refuted the religious claims. Strauss saw in the Enlightenment's opposition to religion an "anti-theological ire" or a prejudice, and not a genuine scientific refutation of either Biblical orthodoxy or classical philosophy. Since the Enlightenment proudly conceived of itself as founded to battle and eliminate prejudice, this was not an insignificant charge. Lurking beneath the Enlightenment there appeared to be a fundamental incoherence or self-contradiction.
Strauss as Green presents him was, however, far from pleased at this discovery. For he deeply appreciated the aspiration to a life of rational Enlightenment. Being a Jew who grew up in Germany, he was especially alive to the Enlightenment's attractions as well as its weaknesses. The Enlightenment had created the political conditions that allowed Jews to be admitted to Christian society for the first time as equal citizens. Many if not most Jews tied all their worldly hopes to the Enlightenment's promise. But, on the other hand, that admission was contingent; as Count Stanislas de Clermont-Tonnerre, the great spokesman for Jewish emancipation, stated in the French National Assembly in 1789, "The Jews should be denied everything as a nation, but granted everything as individuals." Napoleon was said to have summarized it in pure theological-political terms, "To Jews as Frenchmen, everything; to Jews as Jews, nothing." The Enlightenment did, after all, dogmatically deny the core of Jewish belief, divine revelation. The consequences became ever clearer as Enlightenment skepticism began to influence Jewish thinkers, weakening all the forms of Judaism except orthodox Judaism. The Jews were on the horns of a dilemma; because they had so benefited from the Enlightenment they felt they could not do without it; but at the same time, the core of Jewish belief was threatened by this very Enlightenment. Hence Jews felt the "theological-political problem" inherent in modern Western civilization perhaps more acutely than any other group.
If the Enlightenment undermines religion, that is a grave problem for religion. But if the Enlightenment undermines itself, that is sooner or later the death knell for the Enlightenment. Is it also the death knell for reason, or for a rational human society and existence? Green writes: "Strauss wanted especially to know whether it was rationalism per se that had caused the present crisis in modern philosophy and society, which were both gradually and discernibly turning against reason itself, or whether it was produced only by the modern species of rationalism. It was for this comparative diagnostic purpose that he first studied mediaeval Jewish rationalism." Green boldly asserts that Strauss's Jewish thought, which can be seen as a sustained reflection on Maimonides, is a solid pillar of Strauss's thought as a whole, and the pinnacle of Jewish thought in this century. But why Maimonides?
Maimonides attempted a fusion of the natural religion (or the reverence for nature) inherent in the Greek philosophic classics of Aristotle and Plato, and the revealed religion of Moses and the Bible or Koran. Maimonides is the classic rational Jewish thinker, revered by Jewish, and many Moslem and Christian thinkers alike; his was one of the seminal works that gave birth to the Western world as we know it-to the marriage of "Athens and Jerusalem". A copy of Maimonides' masterpiece, The Guide of the Perplexed, was said to be always on the desk of St. Thomas Aquinas.
This marriage of Greeks and Jews does not raise our eyebrows; but in Maimonides' time, it was infinitely more problematic and forbidden than the wedding of a Capulet and a Montague. This marriage that appears so acceptable to us had, in a way, to be performed in secret, and the rabbi conducted the covert ceremony in his esoteric text, The Guide of the Perplexed. It took more than a little intellectual chutzpah for the greatest and most respected rabbi of his time to mate Judaism with the pagan thought of polytheistic Greeks.
What family lines were brought together by this ceremony? The adherents of the natural religion of the Socratics, including Aristotle, Cicero, and the great Islamic philosopher Avicenna (980-1087), sat in one row; and the revealed religion of the ancient Hebrews with all the prophets faced them on the other side. This match had been first attempted by the great Moslem philosophers, led by Alfarabi (ca. 870-950), whose Aesopian commentaries on the Greeks Maimonides never ceased to study.
Were bride and groom drawn to each other because of a fundamental agreement about the important things, or were they complementary opposites? That is the question.
In Maimonides, one detects an argument, the likes of which can be found in Plato's Laws. The Greeks saw reason as the most divine faculty, yet a study of The Laws shows that in divinely inspired laws, which is to say in truly rational laws, one finds much that appears irrational. On closer scrutiny, however, one finds that these apparently irrational laws promote a rational end: habits conducive to the civic common good, and the possibility of islands of essentially radical or speculative philosophy. Taught and inspired by his long study of The Laws and Alfarabi's commentary on it, Maimonides shows how many of the laws of Moses, which appear at first insupportable by reason, end up supporting, by their effects, the most-rationally-possible society. The laws do not appear rational on their surface, because, for Maimonides, "the sons of man" (as he refers to much of mankind) have recourse to reason, but do not necessarily avail themselves of their prerogative, or do so in varying degrees, according to their abilities. For Maimonides, the voice of reason is still and small, and requires laws and traditions to enlist the aid of the passions. And just as the laws have a surface that does not seem rational, and a depth that is rational, so, too, the Bible, if properly understood, has an irrational surface (which makes use of poetic anthropomorphisms to describe God, who has no body) and rational depths.
This marriage of Biblical religion and ancient Greek philosophy, was passed on in modified form via great Christian thinkers such as Aquinas, and then subjected to thorough critique by Bacon and Descartes, Hobbes and Spinoza-the philosophic initiators of the Enlightenment and modern rationalism. Had these latter been invited to the wedding, they would have stood up and objected to its consummation. But if we can imagine them there, so we can imagine Strauss present (Green in effect suggests), and he would have stood up to object to his philosophic colleagues' objections-arguing that because they had failed to appreciate Maimonides, they had failed to appreciate the deeper, rational structure of Biblical religion. The question Green's Strauss poses for us is, Might the marriage between reason and revelation be saved in our time by a return to the wisdom of Maimonides?

Norman Doidge is the chief editor of Books in Canada.


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