Where are today’s Platos and Aristotles?
On this question, for once, Strauss announces that he “won’t beat around the bush in any respect”—and, actually, he doesn’t. As he states flatly: “Since a very, very early time, the main theme of my reflections has been what is called the Jewish question.” His interest does not stem from his being Jewish, he says, but from a broader reason: He is a political philosopher, and, to him, “the Jewish problem is the most manifest symbol of the human problem insofar as it is a social or political problem”—which means that “from every point of view it looks as if the Jewish people were the chosen people.” Several hundred pages later, he repeats: “The Jewish problem, as it is called, is the most simple and available exemplification of the human problem, [which] is one way of stating that the Jews are the chosen people.” In other words, the Jews, in Strauss’s eyes, are the most convincing incarnation of man—not perfect men, for there are no such men, but as close to the essence of man as any man can be.
Hence, the very simple idea that is at the root of the Straussian system and feeds it with a purposeful vitality: There is every possible reason to be proud of being Jewish, as this is no misfortune. (Here and following, the words appearing in italics are Strauss’s.) There is no baseness in actually being a sort of role model for other men to look up to (if they are capable of thinking), and there is even glory and heroism in the perennial sufferings endured by the Jews over the centuries in the name of their identity. Being Jewish is something one can take pride in, and particularly in the face of WASPs who are so eager to discriminate against the Jews and put them “just above the negroes.” There would be no honor in trying to hide one’s Jewishness; it wouldn’t be so much a treason as a shame. In this respect, the creation of the state of Israel has brought about a momentous change in the image the Jews should have of themselves: It has forever restored Jewish honor. Strauss’s philosophy is a hymn to Jewishness—a declaration of independence. Strauss is, very simply, a Jewish nationalist.
Actually, the term is not entirely adequate. Strauss’s attachment goes to something beyond the Jewish people as a nation, or even as a culture. If Judaism understood itself as a mere culture, as describing a human ethnic group, or even as a nation comparable to other nations, it would amount to subscribing to the relativistic philosophy that is the breeding ground of nihilism. (“Any interpretation of science and morality in terms of race, nation, or culture is strictly speaking nihilistic.”) But if the essence of Jewishness is not a particular culture, nor a particular nation, this is because it is civilization itself, the universal culture, the culture of man as man.
And this is Strauss’s basic article of faith, which accounts for the duty of all Jews to stand up for what they are and “remain Jews.” All of Strauss’s ideas either proceed from or lead to this seminal conception. If modernity’s depravity is the result of a lack of any objective universal human standard of living and thinking, it is because the whole momentum of modernity has discredited the idea that there could be men who represent what men should be. Strauss’s effort in going all the way back to classical Greek thinking amounts to going back to the time when that idea was still alive and, therefore, still provided an opportunity for the Jewish idea to become incarnate. In Plato’s and Aristotle’s philosophy, as seen by Strauss, one can find the unique combination that is the cradle of true philosophy: the notion of a purely human wisdom; that of the inevitability of inequality among men; that of a dedication to man’s essence, which results in the philosopher being forced to take over, albeit in a hidden way; and finally, an aversion to any dream of a homogeneous world state.
First, the idea of a purely human wisdom is necessary in order to contend that truth cannot be conceived of as a transcendent that descends upon men thanks to some supernatural grace but must be conceived of as an objective, yet flexible, knowledge that is embedded in some men because of their exceptional ability to achieve humanity in their own selves, which is the case with the Jews, the chosen people. Second, this very same idea entails the notion that truth by nature is not universally communicable, which is normal if universal men happen to be members of a certain nation; whence comes the notion that it is utterly naive to believe in most men being attached to truth or even interested in it, and, consequently, that it is the everlasting condition of mankind that the wise be persecuted by the unwise, which is the condition of the Jewish people. Third, we meet the notion that the wise, unwilling to let folly take over the world, must retrace their steps back into the cavern, but must also adopt biased ways to correct the mistakes of the vulgar and govern only indirectly, in the capacity of counselors, which happens with the Jews because the prejudices of the unwise against them are still so strong as to prevent them from being the figureheads of any government. And finally, the Greeks’ fondness for and devotion to their city is very naturally echoed in “the self-dedication of a whole nation to something which is regarded as infinitely higher than itself, in fact, which is regarded as the infinitely highest,” as shown, for instance, in a fight which should still be fought today, the fight of the Jews against the Romans—“the only fight in the name of an idea made against the Roman empire”—in the name of a past that “no Jew today can do anything better for himself today than to live in remembering,” even if it is a delusion, for it is “the noblest of all delusions.” The creation of the state of Israel is, whatever else it may be, “also a reassertion of the difference between Jews and non Jews.” Unless the world is turned into a Jewish empire, which is impossible by definition, the world has to be composed of nations (“the human race consists of many nations or tribes, or in Hebrew, goyim.”)
Hence, Strauss’s stance against the present world.
Remaining a Jew means resisting the temptation of assimilation. Many Jews have thought of protecting themselves from persecution by “ceasing to be recognizable as a Jew,” something that a liberal society seems not only to allow but to encourage. For Strauss, this is the wrong choice. Not only would it be an erroneous one, because “a liberal society permits and even fosters what is called discrimination”; above all, it would be a dishonorable one, because it would amount to admitting that being Jewish is a misfortune (“We are not from the gutter”) or making “Jewish suffering”—suffering for Judaism—meaningless. Spinoza was “a great man but a bad Jew,” who thought that the Jews “cannot be at the same time members of two nations.”
At the same time, Strauss is no Zionist. While being absolutely honorable, while having restored the honor of the Jews by “calling forth to the fighting qualities which were still so powerfully visible in that glorious time for us of the Crusades,” Zionism should not be considered as a solution to the Jewish problem: In fact, “there is no solution to the Jewish problem.” There are two reasons for this, both flowing from the chosenness of the Jewish people. The first one is that “God has not made [the Jews] like the nations of the other lands, and He has not placed [them] like other families of the earth, since He has not assigned [them] a portion as to them.” In other words, it is the fate and the glory of the Jews to belong to all nations—which should come as no surprise, since Jews belong to the only nation whose citizens are universal men, just as Jesus had no nationality, because he was supposed to be the quintessential man. And the second reason is that the very meaning of Judaism is forever (at least until the final redemption) to remind all men that they are but remote images of the perfect man—in other words, to remind other men of their primeval guilt. “[T]he Jews are chosen to prove the absence of redemption,” so that “all who dwell in the world . . . accept the yoke of [God’s] kingdom,” as a famous Jewish prayer says. Thus, all Jews are what Jesus claimed he was: righteous men sent by God to suffer for what the unrighteous have done. It may be a dream, but “no nobler dream was ever dreamt.” And “dream is aching to aspiration, and aspiration is a kind of divination of an enigmatic vision.”
The quasi-theological language Strauss ends up using should not be misinterpreted: It is metaphorical. Strauss is no orthodox Jew, for the same reason that he gives for not being a zealous Zionist. While it would be wrong for a Jew to forfeit his culture, and particularly his religious culture, it would be equally wrong to reduce Judaism to the dimensions of a mere religion, which would be hard put not to compete with others. One could call Strauss a better Jew than his orthodox brethren, because, to him, what is unique to Jewishness belongs to the realm not of faith, which can neither be proved nor disproved, but of nature—a realm available to unassisted human reason. For him, Judaism is only one manifestation of Jewishness. Jewishness is not a matter of belief but a fact, corresponding to the Greek teaching of rational morality. Hence, a two-sided assessment of the religious question.
Strauss is thoroughly hostile to Christianity: “There is an irreconcilable disagreement between Judaism and Christianity . . . Christianity depends on Judaism and not vice versa. . . . [F]rom Paul on, Christianity has never understood Judaism.” How could it be otherwise if the fact is “undeniable that the Jew denies and the Christian maintains that the Messiah has come”? If there is such a fundamental conflict about the very identity of the Redeemer—if “according to Judaism the elect one is Israel, which never dies . . . [whereas] according to Christianity the elect one is the Christ who died on the cross”? The opposition cannot but evolve into an antagonism that ends up in a fight to the death: “The traditional Christian judgement on the Jew is at least partly responsible for the persecution of the Jews in the Christian society, and therefore, if indirectly for Hitler Germany’s action.” After all, were not the Crusades already “partly a simple orgy of murder of Jews”?
But the same logic hardly applies to the Torah, which leaves Strauss in a bind: He cannot disown Judaism even though he definitely favors Reason over Revelation. To the careful reader, this appears as his way out—one that he hints at naturally rather than expressing straightforwardly. “Western civilization,” says Strauss, “has two roots [that] we may call Jerusalem and Athens . . . the Bible and Greek philosophy.” (Rome, of course, cannot be included.) These two inspirations appear “to be in radical disagreement with each other,” because there is nothing more opposed to an appeal to “autonomous understanding” than an appeal to “obedient love.” But actually, “what Plato’s Laws says about [morality] agrees fully with what Moses says,” so that if “the divine law is an absolutely essential starting point for Greek philosophy . . . it is accepted only politically, meaning for the education of the masses.” Then it seems possible, after Averroes or Maimonides, whom Strauss reveres, to think of Revelation and Reason as saying the same things, though one is meant to address the masses, among whom reason would only be a constant cause of disorder, while the other is only for the happy few—those for whom thought preempts deed and does not degenerate into an excuse for purely negative behavior. Neither can revelation refute philosophy, nor the reverse, repeats Strauss. This may be because they suppose different aptitudes. Beyond “the first and most fundamental division of post-deluvian mankind,” the division into a cursed and a blessed part, would there be “a fundamental dualism in man, that of action and thought?”
This leads to another question that Strauss leaves entirely open: The fact that the wisest men are supposed to be Jews does not necessarily imply that it is enough to be Jewish to be wise. Since Jewishness is a mental or spiritual trait, is it equally shared by all Jews? Moreover, can Jewishness be acquired? In other words, who are these gentlemen, “habitually sympathetic to philosophy,” who stand between the wise and the fools? Strauss’s answer is so subtle that one cannot be certain about his inner convictions.
There is not much left to add, if one strips Strauss’s doctrine down to its basic essentials, except his practical politics. After all, he wants to be a political philosopher.
“The Jews cannot be at the same time the members of two nations and subject to two comprehensive legal codes,” claimed Spinoza. But Spinoza, says Strauss, was “a great man but a bad Jew.” Hence, as has been said, the necessity for the wise to reconcile their wisdom with the folly of the unwise wherever they live; the necessity of “diluting natural right,” the excluding of the immutability of principles, even to the point of lying and deceit, as well as using all the means necessary for the sake of wisdom’s survival; the advisability of a “rule under law of gentlemen.”
Where does this put Strauss on the political chessboard? On one hand, it puts him on the side of the enemies of socialism, in general, and communism, in particular; on the other hand, on the side of those who fight communism for the sake of reason, for the sake of what could be called reasonable modernity, for the sake of liberalism (in Locke’s sense, the European sense). This is not an enthusiastic choice, but there is no perfect society, and the absolute rule of the wise is but a dream. Neither is it a choice based on principles: It is purely pragmatic.
The case against communism is an open and shut one. Strauss doesn’t deny that there may have been communist Jews, Marx or Trotsky being the most famous. But “Trotsky’s communism has been refuted by this highest authority: History.” Communism was saved by Stalin, and “that settles the issue.” For Stalin understood that “anti-Jewish policies made governing the Russians much easier than if one would be strictly fair to Jews.” Stalin turned communism into Russian nationalism, and so have his successors: Communism has become anti-Jewish.
The case for liberal society is more delicate. On purely theoretical grounds, a liberal society, Lockean liberalism, is the breeding ground of relativism, which Strauss does not want to condone. After all, on an empirical level, liberalism, precisely because it is relativistic, is absolutely unable to suppress private discrimination, particularly against Jews: It may abolish legal disabilities put on Jews as Jews, but not private prejudice. Nonetheless, “there is nothing better than the uneasy solution offered by liberal society.” For there is a positive side to relativism, which is tolerance. WASPs may be racist to Strauss; Lockean liberalism is not. For the Western nations are the only ones to proclaim in the same breath their pride at having forfeited their identity and their enthralled admiration for nations who pride themselves on retaining theirs. As was shown during World War II, the British sided “with civilization, with the eternal principles of honesty, rule of law and reasonable liberty” against those of nihilism. (Strauss explicitly assimilates the cause of Great Britain with that of the West, even though he doesn’t mention the French among the Allies, undoubtedly because he considers them as mostly Catholic.) Thus, Strauss points out an undeniable fact: the affinity between liberal Lockean Protestantism and Judaism.
The hopes that Strauss nurtures about reasonable liberalism he leaves to Nietzsche to formulate, which Nietzsche does in so striking a way that it is worth quoting at some length, with Strauss. “The people of Israel,” wrote Nietzsche,
possess by far the greatest experience in all human intercourse, and even in their passions practice the caution taught by experience . . . They themselves best know that there can be no thought of a conquest of Europe [Nietzsche wrote “Europe,” but today, says Strauss, we should say “the West”] . . . but also that at some time Europe may fall like a perfectly ripe fruit into their hand. . . . In the meantime it is necessary for them to distinguish themselves in all the areas of European distinction and to stand among the first . . . Then they will be called the inventors and guides of the Europeans. . . . Then that Seventh Day will again be here when the old Jewish God will be able to rejoice in his chosen people . . .
There is hardly anything to add, since Strauss, not beating around the bush, declares that these words, though ironically written, constitute “the most profound and radical statement on assimilation which [he] has ever read.” One might add that there are a number of additional reasons for such liberal societies as the United States to appear as a more desirable fruit than even Europe, such as the fact that such societies seem to allow a concentration of power in the hands of privileged groups that are by no means closed, or the fact that the power of the American republic constitutes the most powerful bulwark against the enemies of the people of Israel.
There is only one thing Strauss had not foreseen: that there may come a time when the Western openness could start becoming a liability for their Jewish populations. Recently, an Israeli newspaper published an interview with a French Jewish intellectual, which amounted to this warning: The time has come for the gentlemen of France to strengthen the power they used to have over the country, and to prevent her from being so open as to degenerate from her republican identity, lest systematic persecution again hit the Jews who have elected to be French.
Strauss is the intellectual root not only of an intellectual school but of a political movement that Irving Kristol, one of his self-avowed followers, named neoconservatism. Strauss is a lucky philosopher: Not only do his disciples dwell in the most exalted places of power in his country—and therefore, conceivably, in the world—but they all claim to be indebted to him. They range from ambassadors to secretaries of state, from advisors to justices, which accounts for the New York Times at some point calling him “godfather of the Republican party’s 1994 ‘contract with America.’” He is the new Hegel: The new Napoleons ride their horses under his celestial window. Neoconservatives are not an extremely coherent group: Theirs is more a coalition of momentarily coinciding interests. But Strauss has undoubtedly provided neoconservatism with its philosophical core, a doctrine that consists in spreading around the world the social model in which Straussian politics may bloom.