The Magazine

The Reason of Revelation

May 25, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 36 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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I think that you do not take seriously enough those intentions of Nietzsche which point beyond Nietzsche's teaching. . . . For it is not sufficient simply to stop where Nietzsche is no longer right; rather one must ask whether or not Nietzsche himself became untrue to his intention to repeat antiquity, and did so as a result of his confinement within modern presuppositions or in polemics against these.

Moreover, Strauss insists that -- for all Nietzsche's devastating insights into the weaknesses of liberal democracy -- Nietzsche both failed to see clearly liberal democracy's advantages and obscured through the extravagance of his rhetoric the good reasons for seeking to preserve liberal democracy. And much as he esteems Nietzsche's free-spirited skepticism, Strauss concludes that Nietzsche's way of thinking must be overcome. Nietzsche's philosophical explorations, Strauss argues, remained captive to and distorted by the dogmatic assumption that God is dead, and the explosive power of Nietzsche's critique of modernity simultaneously relied upon and denied reason's power to discern the shape of justice.

To understand the full significance of Strauss's encounter with Nietzsche, one must understand Strauss's reasons for turning to Nietzsche. Strauss always insisted that responsible interpretation begins with the effort to understand an author as he understood himself, his interests and intentions. And he revealed something of his own starting point in "Why We Remain Jews," a little-known lecture delivered at the University of Chicago Hillel House in 1962.

In that lecture, Strauss identifies the question that drove his scholarly investigations throughout his career: "I believe I can say, without any exaggeration, that since a very, very early time the main theme of my reflections has been what is called the 'Jewish Question.'" The statement obviously requires explanation, and explain it Strauss does throughout his writings, in numerous ways and from a variety of angles. But nowhere does he offer a more concentrated and powerful explanation than in the autobiographical preface to his book on Spinoza, where he begins with an arresting description of his situation as a Jew and a citizen: "The author was a young Jew born and raised in Germany who found himself in the grips of the theological-political predicament."

Both the theological and the political dimensions of the predicament derive, in Strauss's view, from the permanent structure of liberalism. Strauss had no illusions about the defects of the Weimar Republic, the weak government in Germany between the country's defeat in World War I and the rise of Hitler: the half-hearted commitment to the principles of liberal democracy, the resentment over what was perceived to be a vindictive settlement imposed on Germany in the Treaty of Versailles, the deep-rooted antipathy to Jews in German culture. But Strauss resists the temptation to explain the precarious situation of the Jews in Weimar as owing only to incidental features of liberal democracy in Germany.

As Strauss understood it, the principle of liberal democracy in the natural freedom and equality of all human beings, and the bond of liberal society is a universal morality that links human beings regardless of religion. Liberalism understands religion to be a primary source of divisiveness in society, but it also regards liberty of religious worship to be a fundamental expression of the autonomy of the individual. To safeguard religion and to safeguard society from conflicts over religion, liberalism pushes religion to the private sphere where it is protected by law. The liberal state also strictly prohibits public laws that discriminate on the basis of religion. What the liberal state cannot do without ceasing to be liberal is to use the law to root out and entirely eliminate discrimination, religious and otherwise, on the part of private individuals and groups.

According to Strauss, in Germany in the 1920s, liberalism secured a privacy that protected the autonomy of the individual. But that privacy provided at the same time shelter to the determination on the part of the non-Jewish German majority to view Jews as an inferior people and consign them to second- class status. In response, "a small minority of the German Jews, but a considerable minority of the German Jewish youth studying at the universities" were impelled to turn to Zionism. One of that considerable minority was Strauss.