Reviews of The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis, by Leon R. Kass;
and Political Philosophy and the God of Abraham, by Thomas L. Pangle

Several years ago, a friend told me a story about a most pious rabbi who met his end after a long life of serving others. Upon his final breath, his soul left his mortal remains and awoke—in the flames of Hell. "Blessed be God!" he immediately cried. "Now no one will think I did it all for the reward."

A week or so after hearing this story I shared it with another friend. He replied, with a laugh, "Yeah, I wonder if after a few days of torment he was still singing the same tune!"

The first friend was a student of Leon Kass (as I was, too), the second of Thomas Pangle. Students all too easily distort their teacher's thought. They often grasp one tendency of that thought, yank it, and unravel the whole like a pull in a knit sweater. But distortion may still preserve or even highlight some of the truth. These two students' very different reactions to the same story reveal something of the difference between their teachers, even though these two men come from the same philosophical school. In the same way, Kass and Pangle's attempts to grapple with the philosophers' perennial sparring partner, the Bible, reveal something of the thought of their own teacher, Leo Strauss.

Pangle, like Strauss, writes with care. But of all his excellent books, he seems to have taken the greatest care in writing Political Philosophy and the God of Abraham. Every sentence, every phrase, every word counts.

This attention to detail does not arise from mere fastidiousness. One understands Pangle's care only when one understands his project—and no small one is it. "The time is ripe," he proclaims, "and overripe, for political philosophy in the strict or genuine sense, political philosophy as the foundation of rationalism, to be brought back from its late-modern exile." 

Here Pangle's condensed prose makes it necessary to clarify some terms. For Pangle (closely following the Strauss of the introduction to Philosophy and Law and of the Hobbes and Machiavelli sections of Natural Right and History), "genuine" "political philosophy" amounts to Socratic philosophy, the love of wisdom "refounded by Socrates–and then once again refounded, with a dramatically altered but not wholly new agenda, by Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Spinoza in the early modern period." Genuine political philosophy forms the basis of "classical rationalism," subsuming (in Pangle's view) much of what others would call "ancient" and "medieval" philosophy. "Modern rationalism" differs from the classical type precisely on the question of religion: modern rationalists "consciously prepare a world mesmerized by the rewards of secular progress, in which fewer and fewer" thoughtful souls take seriously the challenge posed to reason by revelation. The success of the modern project (understood this way) buried its own intention—to face down revelation's challenge—causing the "exile" of the philosophizing that gave that project life. The "political philosophy" that Pangle would return from exile, therefore, amounts to taking on that challenge, the challenge of revelation to reason.

Pangle leaves no doubt that he begins on the side of reason. On the first page he explains that he will read Genesis, "animated by the concerns and questions and doubts of the philosophic enterprise as it was refounded by Socrates…." And he makes clear the ground—Strauss calls it the "common ground"—on which to parley with the Bible:

Now, it is in regard to the right and the good—that is, in regard to justice or righteousness—that political philosophy and scriptural piety have the fullest basis for a conversation that may well be mutually illuminating. For righteousness, or justice in the fullest sense, is the theme of political philosophy, the cynosure of its meditations, even as righteousness (or justice in the full sense) is among the highest and most essential themes of Scripture.

Incidentally, though Pangle refers here to "Scripture," he restricts his attention to the first 22 chapters of Genesis. Why? As will become clearer below, for Pangle, these chapters reveal most clearly the connection between human righteousness and the righteous God—or between belief in justice and belief in an omnipotent God. Kass, in contrast, restricts his attention to Genesis because he sees in the book the richest presentation of "the human beginnings"—and not just the Jewish beginnings—an "anthropology" not blinkered with the blind spots of scientific anthropology. Kass anthropologizes, while Pangle critiques the highest political beliefs. Or, to use Strauss' distinction, Pangle's political philosophizing approaches politics as pre-philosophy, a necessary prelude to true philosophizing. Kass philosophizes about human affairs as worthy in themselves.

* * *

But to return to pangle's conversation—how does it go—a conversation that Strauss sets up in exactly this way, at the center of his article, "Progress or Return?" Like any good dialogue, it has its twists and turns, but one must keep one's eye on the ball: righteousness or "justice in the fullest sense." Pangle constructs this crucial element of the conversation, appropriately enough, in commenting on Abraham's dialogue with God, in which Abraham asks God to spare the few just inhabitants of Sodom. Pangle emphasizes that Abraham does not engage in "special pleading" for himself or his family (Lot). He then suggests, "Indeed, his strict subordination of his concern for his own desert is a precondition of his and his family's becoming deserving." Deserving of what? Deserving of God's bounty, prosperity, reward. For does not Abraham concede that the just should be rewarded and the unjust punished?

But this concession, this demand for reward and punishment, is precisely the problem, in Pangle's view:

…if Abraham's, if the righteous man's, justice (and piety), if his apparent subordination or sacrifice of his own good, if his apparent devotion to the good of others, are all in fact pursued with a view to receiving the reward that enhances his own good or avoiding the penalty that detracts from it, then the just man would seem no longer to differ radically in motivation and goal from the unjust…. Moreover, the just man would seem no longer so clearly to merit the recompense or reward for which he hopes, since he did not truly subordinate his own good to something beyond himself.

And so Pangle concludes, "The core of the just man's self-understanding would appear to become incoherent and self-canceling…." Even in the binding of Isaac, Pangle finds the same argument: "Abraham's unequaled deed is infinitely clearer to us than the coherence of the thought that was in his heart." But justice also demands coherence, not confusion, even good-looking confusion. So much, then, for justice.

But what about the conversation between faith and reason, of which justice was to form the basis? Do the two now go their separate ways, precisely as the late-moderns seem to wish? Not at all. Pangle points to the proper conclusion (in his view) in this parenthetical remark:

From the biblical point of view, the adherent of philosophy indulges in the idlest of speculations if or when he wonders how this experience [God's call], and the apparent evidence it supplies for the existence of the God experienced, would alter, for Abraham or for the countless others of us who have experienced some degree of something akin, if the intelligibility of the attribute of justice were to alter.

Pangle's "conversation" demands precisely such an alteration—an "alteration" in one's belief in God. Pangle invites us to put these thoughts together: If we can make no sense of justice, what follows for the "Divine judge," the God who identifies Himself and lays claim to obedience precisely as "a God of Justice"? Clearly: No Justice, No God. No God, no creation ex nihilo—and no other "miracles" to obstruct the philosophic study of nature. The "common ground" of justice evaporates, and along with it go the phantasms. Philosophy alone remains standing, and so Pangle ends on the same side where he began: "I hope to have demonstrated how these foundational teachings of the Bible are illuminated when they are interrogated from the perspective of political philosophy." Illumination indeed.

* * *

By claiming that "classical rationalism" rests upon "Socratic" or pre-biblical philosophy, Pangle admits that such rationalism does not need, strictly speaking, to confront the Bible to exist. Indeed, in reviewing this "conversation," one gets the feeling that it does not so much grow out of the biblical text as fall upon it. The reader of all this "grappling" experiences a feeling similar to that of a spectator at a WWF bout: it's exciting, even dazzling, but in the back of your mind you know it's staged.

Such staging becomes especially evident in how Pangle treats the creation of woman. Pangle rightly concludes that God's choice of Eve as a fit helper for man (over such an alternative as, say, Socrates) means that the Bible presents the worshipful family as "the intended focal point of human sociability." But, he immediately adds, the full significance of that focus will not appear unless we compare it with the classical philosophers' account of sociability. Pangle then deftly shows how the these philosophers defended politics as a bastion of philosophical friendship. And, even further, he hints that philosophic friendship points to the goodness of a "divine" solitary life:

The moral life of the city transcends the family and is itself surpassed or at least crowned by intimate friendship, but even the latter is ultimately transcended, in and by an ascent toward the divine spiritual self-sufficiency that is the dimly beheld highest aspiration of the life of the city.

The contrast is clear: Eve versus the solitary life. (Pangle seems to side with 17th-century poet Andrew Marvell: "Two paradises 'twere one, To live in paradise alone.") And it is in light of such a contrast that Kass, quite incidentally but nonetheless powerfully, offers the beginning of a response to Pangle's challenging work.

* * *

Kass starts by confessing that his book "offers a philosophic reading of Genesis." He thus appears to stake out ground similar to Pangle's, an approach that has made uneasy many of his more religiously sensitive readers. But unlike Pangle's work, Kass's cannot be said to push "an argument." Instead, it invites "the thoughtful children of skeptics" to reflect, with Kass's encouragement, upon the biblical stories. The book acts almost as a commentary on Genesis. But it does this so effectively because of a sort of double-writing Kass employs: He consistently treats the biblical text as richer than any rational interpretation we can offer—and yet he himself mines those riches so well that he invites his skeptical readers to ignore or forget his humble, even pious, stance. He charms the skeptic into respecting and then embracing Genesis as a source of wisdom.

One small though not random example must suffice to show Kass's artistry. In dealing with Genesis 38, the story of Judah and Tamar, Kass attempts to understand the genuine "turning of the soul" (as Kass Socratically puts it) that Judah experiences upon recognizing his daughter-in-law as the harlot he had used only a few months before. Kass's treatment of the story works on several levels at once. At the most basic level he tries to make sense of the story, which means figuring out why Onan had to die. Kass suggests that the crime Onan (and, in his way, Judah) committed was to disregard the custom of levirate marriage, the duty to raise up a child for the dead brother.

But this textual inquiry leads Kass, at a higher level, to a polemic: to defend this custom before readers who likely find it "peculiar, even ugly and barbarous." To do that, Kass must up the ante further, and show that the custom—and the story—"uphold what is centrally important in marriage altogether." That challenge allows Kass to make a proleptic summary, one that characteristically combines care with beauty:

The heart of marriage, especially but not only biblically speaking, is not primarily a matter of the heart; rather, it is primarily about procreation and, even more, about transmission of a way of life. Husband and wife, whether they know it or not, are incipiently father and mother, parents of children for whose moral and spiritual education they bear a sacred obligation—to ancestors, to community, to God—an obligation symbolized first in the covenant-making commandment of berith milah, of circumcision…. Precisely because of their communal commitment to care for righteousness, they must not, even in marriage that takes them from their fathers' house, cease to be their brothers' keepers…. If the home of one's progeny is to become a home also of perpetuation and transmission, reverence for one's origins is paramount; kinship and attachment to the community must triumph over sibling rivalry and moderate somewhat the drive for independence.

In the exposition that follows, Kass shows how the story embodies this lesson. The levirate law makes sense, a sense recognized with stunning drama by Judah upon the revelation of Tamar.

But one more interpretive level stands above Kass's defense of this custom or even his exposition of "the heart of marriage." Kass entitles this section of his book "The Other Candidate: the Education of Judah." The "other candidate" alludes to "a certain Adullamite whose name was Hirah": he was Judah's friend. Kass recognizes that in the story of Judah two ways of life contend: the life of the friend and the life of the brother (and father). While the Bible clearly teaches the superiority of the latter, Kass makes the best possible case for friendship, not only by citing its most famous biblical examples (Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan), but also by appealing to its greatest defenders, the Greeks, especially the Greek philosophers. Nonetheless, this story, by revealing the importance of marriage, also reveals—and criticizes—the goal of friendship: "The goal appears to be a kind of independent self-sufficiency—in the heroic extreme, to become like a god, ageless and immortal (at the very least, in song and story)—in defiance of our finitude and neediness."

Pangle could not have said it better. In the context of the biblical story, friendship plausibly appears as a sort of self-forgetting, a trunctuation (even if a highly pleasant trunctuation) of the wholeness of human life. Ironically, however, what idolizing friendship trunctuates is our finitude and neediness.

This realization, in turn, forms a possible response to Pangle's argument about justice. Judah gets exactly what he deserves. Not simply as a "wrong-doer" who deserves "punishment," though he is and does. He gets what he deserves as a father, a brother, a father-in-law, a son, a future leader. Justice is not an individual calculus of benefits and losses. Justice demands seeing ourselves wrapped within a garment of destiny, the threads of which are our family ties. It forbids cutting ourselves from those ties, as though we ever could be self-sufficient. The true good is never "my" good; it is God, Who wove this garment as the fitting cloak for naked man. Reasoning about "my" good or "one's" good only snares us anew in the web of the Fall.

* * *

As mentioned, Leo Strauss, the teacher of both Pangle and Kass, set up exactly the conversation which Pangle attempts to complete. He does so at the center of his "Progress or Return?" But Strauss does not complete that conversation. Though in the center of that article he claims that reason and revelation do have a common ground—"divine law," or to be "more precise," "the problem of divine law"—in its final part he states that they share no common ground, that they and their claims must exist in insuperable "tension."

Strauss's moderation, no less than his daring, presents an example to his students and his admirers. Every page of his work shares the fruit of solitary contemplation, in a most friendly manner. Yet he repeatedly thanks the Bible, not as a beaten adversary but as a worthy challenger. Contrary to his most popular critics, there does not lurk at the center of Strauss's thought a political project, of the Left or the Right. Contrary to his most popular defenders, "what Strauss was up to" was not simply the close study of political excellence. In his own various autobiographical statements (such as the "new" introduction to his Spinoza's Critique of Religion or his widely disseminated—and widely misunderstood—speech "Why We Remain Jews"), Strauss emphasizes that the enduring touchstone of his thought, the point around which it revolved, was not any merely political matter, but the "theological-political question." The central word of that triad has received the most attention. The first deserves more. But the last should never be overlooked. The truly Socratic philosopher lives a question. And in this way he may not be all so different from the humble believer.