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Of Greeks and Jews

Old letters throw new light on Leo Strauss.

Oct 25, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 06 • By SUSANNE KLINGENSTEIN
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When the correspondence resumes in 1936, both are in England and the German-Jewish world is being destroyed. Glatzer had done his doctorate with Buber, Tillich, and the orientalist Joseph Horowitz in 1931, and in 1932 became Buber’s successor at the University of Frankfurt. But he left for Palestine when Hitler came to power the following year. He started to teach at the Reali School in Haifa and continued to produce books
for Salman Schocken’s new publishing house, which was still operating in Berlin. 

Strauss had gone to Berlin in 1925, written his books on Spinoza (1925-28) and Maimonides (1928-32), and become interested in Hobbes. With the help of Carl Schmitt he received a Rockefeller grant to study in Paris, but the pull of Hobbes and the threat of Hitler induced Strauss to move with his family to London in 1934. He spent his days in the British Museum studying Hobbes. In 1935, he was living in Cambridge. His book on Hobbes was finished, and he wrote to Alexandre Kojève in Paris: “The economic situation is serious. I have a grant until 1 October, which does not exceed the minimum for bare existence. .  .  . Where we turn, only the gods know. I have no luck, dear Mr. Kochevnikoff.”

It was not bad luck, however, but his intellectual probity and uncompromising pursuit of truth that proved to be the impediment to his professional advancement. In Berlin, Schocken had just published Strauss’s book on Maimonides, Philosophy and Law. It anticipated his Maimonides bomb of 1938. On March 29, 1935, Gershom Scholem wrote to Walter Benjamin: 

Very soon, Schocken .  .  . is publishing a book by Leo Strauss (whom I tried very hard to get appointed in Jerusalem). The book begins—with admirable courage given that everyone will understand this to be the book of a candidate for Jerusalem—with an unfeigned and copiously (if madly) argued affirmation of atheism as the most important Jewish watchword. .  .  . I admire the moral courage and regret the obviously consciously and deliberately provoked suicide of such a capable mind.

Indeed, the chair in Jerusalem went to a safer, more conservative man. 

In the summer of 1936 Strauss was so keen on seeing Glatzer in Cambridge that he showed up at the train station on the wrong day. He wrote how much he wanted to see him: Any day was fine “but Sunday is the cheapest day.” In 1937 his situation was desperate. On January 29 he wrote to Glatzer that he was consumed with worries and buried under work. He had finished editing the last volume of the Mendelssohn edition assigned to him and was looking for a new grant that would prevent his having to return to Germany in September. It occurred to him to ask Glatzer to approach Schocken, who had moved to Palestine in 1934: 

Are you on the kind of footing with Schocken that will allow you to speak to him about me? You know what I am capable of and what I am incapable of. .  .  . You know my earlier publications. … If I had a moment’s peace I’d now write the book about the Moreh that I told you about in London. If you can arrange it, I urge you to speak with Schocken.

In a footnote, Strauss clarified that he planned to write “über die Geheimlehre des Moreh und den Sinn der Esoterik überhaupt” (“about the secret teachings of the Moreh”—Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed—“and the meaning of esotericism in general). He seemed to have been unaware that his first book on Maimonides had ruined his chances in Jerusalem, and that a book about Maimonides’s Moreh as a work of heretical philosophy would finish him altogether for the conventional Jewish world. 

Glatzer, of course, did speak to Schocken, and Strauss thanked him for his speedy assistance. But it turned out that he was able to start a research fellowship at Columbia in the fall of 1937. In early 1938, the Glatzers, too, came to America. Strauss and Glatzer met again in New York. As the copious and substantial letters to Jacob Klein reveal, Strauss was now deeply engaged in working on his Maimonides bomb. He was figuring out just how Maimonides wrote esoterically, that is to say, duplicitously, in order to hide his thoughts from the uninitiated.

In July 1938 he finished his essay on Maimonides’s esoteric technique of writing that finally turned Strauss into a Straussian—and, as he could see during his conversation with Glatzer, would mean departing from the Jews. In his brilliant February 8 letter to Glatzer, Strauss indicated that he knew what he was doing. It’s a letter that recapitulates their history together and marks Glatzer as a sane Akiva and Strauss as the infamous heretic Elisha ben Abuyah, who went mad when he entered the “paradise” of full knowledge:

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