This is an unusual and indeed a first occasion for me.* Never before have I given a lecture on Leo Strauss. I spoke publicly about him only briefly, at a memorial occasion in Toronto after his death, when a few of us spoke who felt that we had been touched by the thought of Leo Strauss. I also should say from the beginning, I seem to hear the voice of Leo Strauss himself, that I really have no great competence, and I’m quite sure there are many in this room who could give this lecture better than I can. Moreover, if controversy arises—and I understand there is such a thing as controversy on the subject of Strauss’s thought—I’m not quite sure whether I’ll be able to hold my own.
So, then, why have I been asked? As has been mentioned, I dedicated my last book1 to the memory of Leo Strauss. But why did I do that? One does not do such a thing lightly. I think if one dedicates a book at all, there should be some thought behind it. I could quote Allan Bloom, who has written, “[T]hose who have lived with his books over a period of many years have been changed, as were Glaucon and Adeimantus, by the night they spent with Socrates.” I take it this is not a controversial statement. In my case this has been true, though not with his books but with certain crucial encounters. I would not be immodest enough to mention my own affairs were it not for the fact that I think that Judaism—or at least Jewish faith and destiny in our time—has been at stake in these encounters.
I’ll begin with the year 1935, when I went to the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin for a simple reason which would have found Strauss’s total approval: to discover the truth. It sounds very naive, and maybe it is. The truth that I was looking for was the truth of Judaism, because the one thing I had been convinced of was that there was a truth of Judaism to be discovered in the terrible times that were at hand. Berlin of that day was the most absurd and the most appropriate place for the study of Judaism: The most absurd for the obvious reason that we all should have sought refuge as quickly as possible from the dangers which we underestimated; the most appropriate because rarely before or since has there been a place or set of circumstances calculated to make a young Jew take the study of Judaism so seriously. The name of the institution, Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, roughly translated means “Higher Academy for the Science of Judaism.” It’s a bad translation, for “Wissenschaft” and “science” are not quite the same. And the story which I will briefly rehearse might be set over a hundred years earlier when a group of young Jewish intellectuals formed an organization with the bold purpose of saving the future of Judaism. Among the famous were Eduard Cans, subsequently one of the most significant Hegelians; Heinrich Heine, the poet (surely the greatest of them); and Leopold Zunz. Their first principle was that, since they believed that the future survival of Jews and Judaism was necessary, it must also be possible. The minimum condition of survival was that conversion to Christianity for opportunistic reasons was to be ruled out. Shortly after, Cans became converted in order to be able to secure a professorship at Berlin. Heine became a convert, as he himself called it, as an “admission ticket to European civilization,” and never got over the trauma. The man who remained, Leopold Zunz, became the founder of the scholarly study of Judaism. Now I had come to Berlin in search of truth. What I got instead was the scholarly study of Judaism. What it meant to Zunz was never quite clear, but Moritz Steinschneider, a colleague of Zunz who was even more scholarly than Zunz himself, said it bluntly: “Judaism is dead, scholarship means giving it a decent burial.”
I don’t think you can search for the truth of Judaism without the help of Jewish philosophy or, for that matter, general philosophy. But what we were given was the scholarly study of past philosophy, which meant that many questions were raised of what, for example, Maimonides had said or meant. Whether what Maimonides had said was true was considered an unscholarly question. It was at that point in my career that my first encounter with Strauss took place, when I read the one and only book of his which to this day (disgracefully, I think) has not been translated into English: Philosophie und Gesetz.2 It hasn’t been published yet, so I feel free to give a few quotations. I read this book as a very young student and was immediately gripped by it. This is what he says at the very beginning: “If the belief in the creation of the world, the reality of biblical miracles, the valid law based on revelation at Sinai, is the foundation of Judaism, then one must say that modern Enlightenment has undermined its foundation.” There seemed to be a man who uttered a radical challenge, a challenge which a scholarship simply confined to the sayings of men in the past didn’t face. Since it is clear from the very beginning of the book that Strauss does not take this simply lying down, one could not but go on and read from there. A few pages later Strauss asks this question: “Should one say that world history is the world judgment or, more precisely, just the last three hundred years?” The allusion is to Schiller, who made that statement, and more especially to Hegel who endorsed it. Does that mean that since the Enlightenment is more recent than Maimonides, it has won? For no reason other than that it is more recent? Then he raised the question which immediately fascinated me: Maybe one must pick up those dusty old books and read them. And maybe one should not prejudge the question, “Who in this struggle between what he calls Jewish orthodoxy and modern Enlightenment, is right?” There was no question that here there was a search for truth.
Strauss goes on to close the chapter by saying, “Since it is clear that on the one hand there seems to be a conflict between modern enlightenment and a philosophy based on revelation, while on the other hand certainly enlightenment of some sort is a modern necessity, one ought to ask whether modern enlightenment is the only enlightenment that is possible.” Now these are trenchant words. Some of the cognoscenti, the experts on Strauss (of whom I am not one) say this belongs to the early period of Strauss. This should not mean that the early period is superseded or insignificant because I see these words reverberating to the very last words of Strauss so far as I am familiar with them. Perhaps there is such a thing as an enlightenment which is fully as rational as modern enlightenment claims to be, but which does not turn against the traditional verities? In this case, the issue that interested me, that concerned me above all, was revelation. Strauss goes on, just a little, into what revelation might mean. “Revelation is looked for only if man needs it,” he says, “that is to say if his own reason is not satisfactory for all questions.” There are overtones here to a debt Strauss himself owed, that began with his saying that one does not dedicate a book lightly. Certainly that was not Strauss’s practice. He had dedicated his first book to the memory of Franz Rosenzweig, the great renewer of the quest for revelation in Judaism.
Now, under the impact of just that small volume, I decided to change my course of studies. That is why I quoted Bloom, and I think that statement, at least, is uncontroversial. I’m sure many people who never met Strauss in person simply were gripped by a book of his, and it did change their lives. In my own philosophical search, the names that were then around were obviously Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and not quite so obviously the late Schelling, who has been a great concern of mine all my life.
But that presupposed that the ancients or, in this case, the premoderns were not to be taken seriously in their own right. I then decided that I could not possibly deal with the question of Kierkegaard and others adequately unless I had considered the alternative first. So, purely under the influence of Strauss’s book, I decided to do my Ph.D. thesis on medieval philosophy. I was blessed by the winds of fortune to be driven to Toronto where there was an institute that I think, in the Germany of the Weimar Republic or what followed, was not conceivable: the Institute of Medieval Studies where Thomism was taught as the simple truth. If you asked, “Well, what about the modern philosophy that came since?” the answer is really quite simple: “It’s a mistake.” Jacques Maritain, one of my teachers, put it most bluntly, in a way with admirable boldness (or, if you wish to put the same thing in Hebrew, admirable chutzpah). He wrote a book in which he advocated intellectual intuition which, of course, Kant rejects (and Kant is not a philosopher to be taken lightly). But Maritain said (I forget whether verbally or in one of his writings), “Intellectual intuition means you see-there are philosophers who see and those who don’t see.” That was the end of the subject; Kant was a philosopher who didn’t see.
It wasn’t the end of the subject for me. And I must say, when I now think of my teachers, it was very refreshing then (coming as I did from what you might call decadent central Europe) to see and to hear the philosophia perennis. There were Gilson, Maritain, and other less-well-known names that meant a great deal to me. And then there was Leo Strauss. The influence of Gilson and Maritain is long past. There was one fundamental difference between them and Leo Strauss. For Leo Strauss, to get back to the premoderns—whether it was the Greeks or the Jews, whether it was Athens or Jerusalem—required an extraordinarily difficult act of recovery. They were not automatically contemporaries. I recall that I once attended a meeting at the American Philosophical Association where there were two significant philosophers who I knew, but who didn’t know each other: one was Leo Strauss, the other was Paul Weiss. I introduced them to each other, and afterward each told me what he thought of the other. Paul Weiss thought Leo Strauss was perverse, and Leo Strauss thought that Paul Weiss was naive. And I think that sort of sums up the situation. You just don’t reopen the questions of Plato and Aristotle in an historical vacuum. If you want to ask, “What is it that made the difference between Weiss and Strauss?” you could simply point to one figure: Martin Heidegger. There is history, and there is a threat that history is destructive of eternal verities, or, to put it otherwise, “the threat of historicism and how to overcome it.” That, or something similar—Die Uberwindung des Historismus—was the title of a book by Ernst Troeltsch. I read the book, but it did not fulfill the promise of its title.
Well, as I say, I was at Toronto and decided to take a daring step for a young man—namely, to seek out Strauss in person. He was still living in New York, and he welcomed me with open arms. I was afraid of stealing his time, but he didn’t seem to consider me a thief of his time. We must have spent four or five hours talking, and I thought, could it really be that this man is as lonely, intellectually, as I was? In any case, he was very kind to me, and whenever I got sort of depressed-philosophically depressed, that is to say—I would take a train or a plane to New York and spend a few hours with him.
I found that some of these meetings had a great shock value. I was writing the only paper on Maimonides ever published—of course largely under Strauss’s influence—and as I discussed it with him, I learned a few lessons about what it means to read a text carefully. If indeed, Heidegger notwithstanding, it is to be possible to span that gap from the “now” to the ancient text, then the first condition is that the text is to be taken with the greatest seriousness. I forget what the issue was, but I asserted something about the Guide to the Perplexed which appears in the second book, and Strauss said, “Have you noticed that he comes back to the subject in the third book?” Well, I hadn’t noticed it. I was too young and innocent and ignorant. He not only made me notice it, but he showed that there must be great significance if Maimonides returns in the third book to the subject already dealt with in the second. Maybe what is in the second book is only exoteric and meant for the people who don’t read any further. I think that, for those who were fortunate enough actually to study with Strauss, one of the greatest lessons must have been to learn how to treat a text carefully, to read it in its own right. To some extent this must have been his Jewish heritage, because it is a Jewish tradition that the text must be read carefully—primarily, of course, the Bible. And in the Sayings of the Fathers it is said, “Turn it and turn it, everything is in it.” Then it applies derivatively to the Talmud, and then it applies derivatively to the commentaries on the Talmud. Heinrich Heine, who was able to mock things sacred and get away with it, told of a Christian-Jewish disputation which is foredoomed from the start because each quotes his own authorities. Finally, the rabbi quotes an obscure Talmudic commentary, and the Christian says, “The Tausvos-Yontef can go to the Devil!” The rabbi goes crazy because for him this commentary is God Himself. I think the tradition mockingly alluded to here must have had a share in the development of Strauss’s thought.
Of course, Strauss has his own philosophical concern with the text. If, indeed, there is a gulf between the here and the then, one must read the text with the greatest closeness in order to bridge that gulf. I won’t go into doctrines of Strauss’s which are well known, of the esoteric and the exoteric, but what I am limiting myself to goes on in all of his writing. The text does not disclose its secrets easily, and then perhaps a derivative thing should be that the writer about the text should not disclose his secrets easily, and I think the fact that there is controversy surrounding Strauss has something to do with it. Of course Strauss is a most extraordinarily subtle writer, and one reads him and reads him and finds more in him all the time.
In my meetings with him, it soon became clear that for him there are two alternatives, and I think all his life he must have struggled with them. They go by the names “Athens” and “Jerusalem.” He spoke very lovingly of the Yevanim, the Hebrew word for Greeks, and, of course automatically, he spoke lovingly of the Jewish tradition with which he wrestled all of his life. Incidentally, near our home in Jerusalem is a square dedicated to the “sages of Greece.” Strauss would have loved that.
The fundamental point about Jewish tradition, which came out again and again in further meetings I had with him, was that Torah is either the Word of God or else it has no essential significance. If the whole tradition was mistaken on this fundamental point, and if Torah is just a part of culture (and maybe a minor part), to treat it as mere culture would revolutionize the whole past. But perhaps the tradition was right? This was the obvious question, but there was also an underlying question: How does one know that to get back to either the Greeks or the Jews, Athens or Jerusalem, is possible? It must be possible because it is necessary! And why is it necessary? Because the shadow of Nazism hung over us all.
I don’t know of any place where Strauss discusses Nazism in great detail, and, particularly when it came to evil, he exercised great self-restraint. I think his restraint on this subject could be best contrasted with the lack of restraint of his contemporary, Hannah Arendt, who wrote about it at length, sometimes well, sometimes not so well. Strauss exercised the greatest restraint, and I think here perhaps is one point where I would dissent with him. But the underlying theme that the possibility and actuality of Nazism was a sign of corruption in modern civilization was surely an essential element in this search for a possibility of a return to the ancients which must be necessary.
After this, I lost touch with Strauss. There was an external reason: He moved to Chicago, and I didn’t get to Chicago as often as New York. There was also another reason: For me, the medievals became less and less relevant because of one figure, and I think this is the figure one has to choose as an alternative to Plato. That figure is Hegel. I think the essential difference between Hegel and Plato, both of whom are concerned with eternal verities, is that for Hegel history falls inside the realm of verities, and this is made possible by Christianity. I found it necessary to become more and more involved with Hegel, and I think, by the same token, more and more remote, during this period, from Strauss. Strauss spoke to me about Hegel from time to time, and he had only noble things to say about him. In his terms, “Man muss seine Rechtschaffenheit bewundern“ (“His rectitude is admirable”), which is, I think, an excellent judgment because most people don’t recognize it in Hegel—Hegel uses big words, and people who use big words generally don’t have philosophical rectitude. Of course there is a whole German tradition, and I’ve had a lifelong doubt as to whether Heidegger is really to be included among the greatest of philosophers: He often does use big words without one being able to see the necessity. The more one studies Hegel, the more one sees that he uses those big words as little as possible, and only when they are necessary. So this rectitude in Hegel, Strauss recognized. He just chose the alternative way, and this difference between us led us very far apart.
Nevertheless, we remained in contact. When I wrote to him and sent him my first attempt (a small attempt) to deal with historicism, in Metaphysics and Historicity, he wrote to me (a sign of Strauss’s own rectitude) that my attempt, in retrospect naive, to refute Heidegger was inadequate. I tried to refute Heidegger by accusing him of self-contradiction, which is a sort of sophomoric philosophical activity. And Strauss pointed out, knowing Heidegger to be, for better or worse, the greatest philosopher then in opposition, that this was inadequate. I accepted his criticism for the validity it had, and I must say I’m sorry he was no longer alive when my last attempt to cope with Heidegger appeared. I’ve wondered whether he would have considered that one sophomoric, too. I don’t know—I hope not—but that is what happened at the time. Recently, when I reread his Jerusalem and Athens, I still noticed that, whereas he had moved to the Yevanim, to the Greeks, he had left open the option of Jerusalem and revelation. But I must say I now found myself necessarily compelled to dissent on two points in his account. This may explain our moving apart.
I spoke before of restraint vis-a-vis Nazism in Strauss. I think there is a restraint in him vis-a-vis evil altogether. This is what Strauss wrote about the serpent in his account of Genesis: “It is reasonable to assume that the serpent acted as it did because it was cunning; that is, possessed a low kind of wisdom, a congenital malice. Everything that God has created would not be very good if it did not include something congenially bent on mischief.”‘ Now of course it depends what one has in mind when reading this passage in Genesis, but I find myself dissenting from this view. Perhaps one thing that Plato and Hegel have in common is not to take evil sufficiently seriously, though for different reasons.
Now I would not be honest if I did not push this doubt to its full conclusion. In a great essay, Strauss writes:
It is safer to try to understand the low in the light of the high than the high in the light of the low. In doing the latter, one necessarily distorts the high, whereas in doing the former one does not deprive the low of the freedom to reveal itself fully for what it is.4
This is clearly Platonic: You understand the perverse state of the tripartite “soul” in terms of its healthy state. Perversity and chaos come in many forms, and you recognize them for what they are. It seems to me that there are limitations here. The limitation is that there is one low that cannot be understood, or does not fully reveal itself, if looked at from the standpoint of the high. That low is Nazism and especially the Holocaust. I think Plato—and maybe I should say both Athens and Jerusalem—is not adequate when it comes to confronting the diabolical evil that is the Holocaust.
I used to read during the evening of the Passover Seder a statement which the Orthodox Rabbinate in New York distributed. It was a great accomplishment to take note of the Holocaust at all in the ritual. This is what it says after alluding very, very vaguely to the Nazi crimes: “We refrain from dwelling on the deeds of the wicked ones, lest we defame the image of God in which man was created.” I no longer find this satisfactory, just as I find Strauss’s statement no longer satisfactory, because, in the first place, we don’t defame the image of man, they defamed it. It’s a very different thing. In the second place, the defamation has consequences, and what is necessary is to take note of them and to confront them. I think, in determining to confront them, I could take a cue from Strauss himself, from the very early work which I alluded to initially, where he raises the question of the conflict between traditional Judaism and the Enlightenment. There he asks, “Shall we go back to premodern naivity?” That’s not possible. What we have to do is radicalize Enlightenment reflection, and overcome it. I would say that if the turn to history is, after all, inevitable, and Heidegger and all he stands for in this matter has to be coped with, then I think that what has to be done is to confront Heidegger with the Holocaust. I think this would be an attempt to confront the evil and to cope with it. I fully agree with Strauss that the high has to be understood in its own terms; that if it is understood in terms of the low, it is necessarily distorted. But if all the low is indiscriminately viewed in the light of the high, Auschwitz becomes just one “tyranny” among others. It will be remembered in Plato’s Republic, the ultimate political perversion is tyranny. But Plato did not and could not conceive of the Holocaust because it had not yet happened.
Let me end up by making just two points on Strauss’s last posthumous book. I think all the Straussian experts are somewhat puzzled by the title: Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy. It does not say “and other essays,” so that must be intended—and it was Strauss’s own title. Not only the essays, but also their order was requested by Strauss. The last of the essays, in a book on Platonic philosophy, is on Hermann Cohen. Hermann Cohen was a Jewish philosopher; in fact, he was Strauss’s teacher. I think it proves that Strauss never gave up on Jerusalem any more than on Athens.
This is my first point. The second is that the end of the Cohen essay seems unsatisfactory. This illustrates his excessive restraint in dealing with radical evil, which is characteristic of the Platonic tradition. In the case of Hermann Cohen, he saw things both too brightly and too darkly. Strauss ends the essay on him-and this is the end of the book-by saying, “It was a blessing that Hermann Cohen lived and taught.” On this I think we can fully agree. Then he makes two statements connected with this: “Even though Hermann Cohen didn’t know it [he died in 1917], this teaching on the nobility of martyrdom gave strength to the Jews in the sufferings that were to come.” Unfortunately, this is much too positive an appraisal. Cohen calls martyrdom meaningful and implies that it is always possible and always meaningful, but the Holocaust robbed most of its victims of the very possibility of martyrdom. Martyrdom involves a free choice. The Jews of the Holocaust were not willing martyrs but unwilling victims. In this respect then, Strauss’s view is not grim enough; in another respect, it is too grim. He continues, “Hermann Cohen gave no comfort and no guidance to the Jews of the Soviet Union, because no philosophy can give them any guidance.” Why? Because here is a tyranny that robs Jews of the knowledge of Judaism.
My wife and I visited the Soviet Union in 1977. Our purpose was precisely to defy that Soviet policy. If Jews who want to know about Judaism are deprived of that possibility, then it is necessary for us to visit them and give them that knowledge. So that was our purpose. I made my first phone call, trembling with fear of not reaching anybody, but I reached someone right away. We rushed right over, and he said his group was meeting in an hour, so we had to settle what we would talk about. I asked him, “What do you want me to talk about?” He said, “Jewish philosophy.” I asked him, “What do you mean by Jewish philosophy?” He gave a magnificent answer: “We all know that it is our duty to survive as Jews. Jewish philosophy will tell us why.” Here, then, Strauss was too pessimistic. He did not reckon with Jews who, though robbed of the knowledge of Judaism, defy their oppressors in heroic fidelity to a heritage they do not know. In trying to recover it, some will find a great blessing in Strauss. Strauss said about Hermann Cohen that it was a blessing that he lived and taught. To paraphrase this: It was a great blessing for the future of Jewish philosophy that Leo Strauss lived and taught.
*”Leo Strauss and Modern Judaism.” Copyright 1985 by Emil Fackenheim. This is a revision of a lecture delivered on March 26, 1985, at the Faculty House of The Claremont Colleges for the Claremont Chapter of Pi Sigma Alpha, the National Political Science Honors Society.
1To Mend the World: Foundations of Future Jewish Thought (New York: Schocken Books, 1982).
2To be published by Schocken as Philosophy and Law, translated by Fred Baumann.
3“Jerusalem and Athens: Some Preliminary Reflections,” reprinted in Leo Strauss’s Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), pp. 147-73).
4From the “Preface to the English Translation,” in Spinoza’s Critique of Religion (New York: Schocken Books, 1965), p. 2.