The Reason of Revelation
May 25, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 36 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
It took twenty-five years to get around to this anthology on Jewish philosophy and theology -- perhaps because, even among many of his most devoted followers, Judaism has seldom been considered of fundamental importance to the thought of the political philosopher Leo Strauss. But now at last Kenneth Hart Green -- associate professor of religion at the University of Toronto and author of the 1993 study Jew and Philosopher: The Return to Maimonides in the Jewish Thought of Leo Strauss -- has gathered in one volume the evidence that Strauss took Jewish thought very seriously indeed. Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity: Essays and Lectures in Modern Jewish Thought, one of five volumes in a SUNY Press series, The Jewish Writings of Leo Strauss, contains seventeen essays and lectures, all produced after 1945. The book finally demonstrates the centrality of Judaism for one of America's most influential teachers.
Strauss was born in Germany in 1899, sat in on the path-breaking seminars of the philosopher Martin Heidegger during the 1920s, left Germany in 1932 for France and then England, and, after arriving in the United States in 1938, joined numerous other emigre scholars at the New School for Social Research in New York City. In the 1950s and 1960s, at the peak of his career, he taught political science at the University of Chicago. There, a loyal band of students gathered around him, and many who attended his classes revered him as the wisest man they had ever met. He died in 1973, but he left a considerable number of students -- Straussians, as they have come to be called -- who went on to achieve distinction as scholars. Today, the students of those students of Strauss (and increasingly their own third-generation students) can be found at universities and colleges across the land.
In the academy, however, Straussians remain a discrete and insular minority in a determinedly hostile environment. According to the hostile consensus, Strauss's writings represent a perverse mix of ignorance, obscurity, and immorality. It is this charge of immorality that is particularly interesting. Until recently, the immorality of Strauss's teaching was held to be his conservatism and elitism. Lately, however, Strauss's critics have developed a new accusation: Far from being a conservative moralist, Strauss is, according to this new interpretation, a disciple of Nietzsche and a proponent in disguise of Nietzsche's radical critique of bourgeois morality. And even a fair number of Strauss's supporters -- Laurence Lampert, most outspoken among them -- have joined in this view that Strauss is, in all essentials, in agreement with Nietzsche.
It's certainly true that Strauss held Nietzsche in high esteem and understood himself to owe a substantial debt to the great German immoralist. In a letter to Karl Lowith, a friend from the days both had attended Heidegger's seminars, Strauss declared, "I can only say that Nietzsche so dominated and bewitched me between my twenty-second and thirtieth year, that I literally believed everything that I understood of him." Three decades later, Strauss produced the most autobiographical of his writings: a long preface to the 1965 English language translation of his first book, Spinoza's Critique of Religion, originally published in 1930 while Strauss was a research fellow in Jewish philosophy at the Academy for the Science of Judaism in Berlin and dedicated to the memory of Franz Rosenzweig. In that preface, Strauss credits Nietzsche with having seen with unrivaled clarity that the morality of modern liberalism derives from and depends upon biblical faith.
Throughout his writings Strauss adduces Nietzsche as a brilliant guide to the leveling impulse at work in the democratic spirit. And a few years before his death, Strauss published an essay on Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil in which he lauded the German philosopher's free-spirited skepticism as an inspiring model of philosophical exploration.
Nevertheless, those who view Strauss as a disciple of Nietzsche confuse abiding admiration with fundamental agreement. The result is to dishonor Strauss by suppressing the complexity of his judgment and the independence of his mind. In his letter to Lowith, Strauss not only indicates that after the age of thirty he broke free of Nietzsche's spell, but goes on to reproach Lowith for failing to see beyond Nietzsche's strengths to grasp the philosopher's failings: