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  • Must God be a Conversation-stopper for the Political Philosopher? Leo Strauss on Philosophy, Religion and Legality
Jeffrey A. Bernstein, Leo Strauss. On the Borders of Judaism, Philosophy, and History (Albany: SUNY Press, 2015), pp. 228. $85.00 (hc). $24.95 (pbk) ISBN 9781438456522
Grant Havers, Leo Strauss and Anglo-American Democracy. A Conservative Critique (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2013), pp. 245. $37.00 (hc) ISBN 9780875804781
Robert Howse, Leo Strauss. Man of Peace (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 188. 88.39 (hc). $34.20 (pbk) ISBN 9781107427679


These three books offer a fairly accurate reflection of the current trends in Strauss scholarship. All three authors wish to depart from the highly charged “Strauss wars” of the previous decade.1 One of the unintended consequences of this departure is that Strauss’s actual politics recede into a sphere of indeterminacy. Though all three authors imply that if it were at all possible to fix Strauss’s politics, then they would most likely fall on the moderate Left rather than on the hard Right of the political spectrum, the focus of their concern lies elsewhere. I would say it concerns Strauss’s approach to religion and its significance for philosophy as well as for politics. Put another way, Strauss is queried here in order to propose some reasonable approaches to the problem of inevitable disagreement about absolute matters, in societies where freedom of thought is most valued.

Twenty years ago, Richard Rorty argued that for contemporary North Americans (and these days some would say for Europeans as well), to bring up religion when having a political discussion was a “conversation-stopper.”2 He had in mind issues like funding for abortion clinics and teaching creationism in public schools. Given what has transpired since in relation to religion in the public sphere, these issues look rather parochial. Today, it seems we can hardly afford having the attitude that bringing up religion in the public sphere is a conversation-stopper. With the advent of “post-secularism,” when jurists and [End Page 238] historians are looking into the religious origins of secular constitutions, we may even say that if God is not part of it, no public and philosophical conversation really matters. And herein lies the interest of these three books, in so far as they all, in different ways and to varying degrees of success, present Leo Strauss as a political thinker who is uniquely interested in getting the conversation moving not only between atheists and believers, between liberals and critics of liberalism, but also across traditional religious and philosophical divides.

Strauss’s thought has generally been approached from two main problem areas: that of Platonic political philosophy (sometimes called the problem of the Quarrel between Ancients and Moderns) and that of Athens and Jerusalem (which Strauss also calls the “theologico-political problem” and I shall address as “political theology”). For Strauss, the first problem concerns the antagonism between philosophy and democracy, whereas the second problem concerns the relation between philosophy and divine law. In the extant literature, the first problem area has received much more attention than the latter. This is in part due to the allergic reaction of a great many first generation Straussians to the theological component of Strauss’s thought. This decision was usually justified by Strauss’s presumed atheism and/or Nietzscheanism.3 The books by Bernstein and Havers make significant contributions to redress the balance by focusing on the second problem and buttressing the claims of Jerusalem to be an essential component of political philosophy in the West. 4 The contribution made by Howse’s book to this problem is perhaps less significant; however, the value of the book consists in focusing attention on a crucial element that joins both problem areas, namely, the status of legality in Strauss’s thought.

Is Maimonides an Athenian Citizen?

Bernstein’s book is probably the best non-Straussian treatment of the problem of Athens and Jerusalem in the thought of Leo Strauss. Within the different Straussian camps, this problem was never properly posed because from the start Athens (meaning Greek political philosophy) was assigned a position of superiority with respect to Jerusalem (meaning Biblical revelation). Previous attempts to address the tension between philosophy and Judaism in Strauss suffered under two related shortcomings.5 First, the standpoint of Jerusalem was not thought through as that of a city in its own right, and thus the political and philosophical status of divine revelation (what we can call “political theology”) was not properly addressed. Second, since Athens and Jerusalem were not taken to symbolize two distinct ways of leading a political and philosophical life, they were assumed to symbolize either two spiritual possibilities found in every individual (e.g., reason and faith) or two dimensions of human life (e.g., theory and practice). [End Page 239]

The merit of Bernstein’s book is to have avoided these pitfalls by assuming from the start that both cities represent two complete “forms of life,” in both of which human life can develop and flourish (rather than posit, for instance, that Jerusalem requires “sacrifice of intellect” or that Athens requires “immoralism”), and, therefore, both cities stand for inherently “political” forms of life. Furthermore, Bernstein sees that insofar as “both ‘cities’ in Strauss’s terms acknowledge that the only way to provide an absolute foundation for law and politics is by reference to divine authority, it [the problem of “what is the best or most just life?”] is a theological problem” (xix–xx). With this statement, Bernstein shifts the emphasis from Athens to Jerusalem, in the sense that “political philosophy” as a product of Athens is always already under the shadow cast by the more fundamental “theologico-political” problem formulated in Jerusalem.

In another departure from received Straussian wisdom, Bernstein argues that in Strauss these two cities, despite their different approaches to divine law, are not ultimately “at war.” Bernstein thinks that Strauss is more at home in one of them (Athens), but that he is happy to sojourn in the other (Jerusalem) as some sort of benevolent stranger. This raises the central question posed by Bernstein’s book: what need does the Platonic philosopher have to travel to distant lands? What role does Jerusalem play for Athens, and, vice versa, what can Jerusalem learn from Athens? Why is it that, to quote Strauss, “every one of us can be and ought to be either the one or the other, the philosopher open to the challenge of theology, or the theologian open to the challenge of philosophy”?6

Bernstein argues that Maimonides becomes the central figure for Strauss because he best embodies the productive tension between Athens and Jerusalem. For Bernstein, Maimonides is a philosopher (“a citizen of Athens” [xxii]), but he is also a defender of the Torah. Agreeing with other commentators that Strauss was not a “believing Jew,” Bernstein nonetheless wants to claim that “Strauss’s engagement with Jerusalem is itself an aspect of philosophy as a contemplative way of life.” In other words, Strauss does not think that philosophers ought to travel to Jerusalem merely for pragmatic or “practical” reasons (e.g., because philosophers, like other human beings, need social order, or morality, or justice) but for “theoretical reasons.” This is what Bernstein means by saying that Strauss is “a citizen of Athens on the border of Jerusalem” (xxix). It seems to me that this is an invaluable and original hypothesis. Bernstein rejects a reasoning often found in the Straussian secondary literature that goes roughly like this: if Maimonides is really an Athenian philosopher, then he must be an atheist; if Maimonides is an atheist, then he cannot possibly defend Jerusalem; if not even Maimonides, who codified the law, can defend Jerusalem, then that city lacks entirely a foundation. [End Page 240]

Bernstein can put forward such a refreshing interpretation of the problem of Athens and Jerusalem in Strauss because, in an excellent first chapter, he takes the trouble to place Strauss within the development of 20th century Jewish philosophy. Thus, he knows that the relation between Athens and Jerusalem cannot be encapsulated by a neat “either/or” between reason and faith because, at least since Hermann Cohen, Jerusalem stands for a position for which “our philosophy is at the same time our faith” (Cohen, Jüdische Schriften vol. III, 173). Minimally interpreted, Jerusalem must offer a dwelling place for Athens.7 Maximally interpreted, Jerusalem can be construed as a standpoint that can be thoroughly permeated by “pagan” philosophy without losing its essence. This was the standpoint of Cohen; it may also have been the standpoint of Philo; and perhaps even that of Maimonides. Fraenkel has recently called this standpoint that of “philosophical religions,” a problematic expression that for the moment will have to do.8

Bernstein does not go that far: for him, Athens remains the sole legitimate locus of philosophy, and it needs Jerusalem because “the philosopher comes to knowledge of his or her own position precisely through the engagement with the religious claim concerning divine law” (14). But “whether Jerusalem needs Athens as much…. That question serves as the limit case of my investigation. Insofar as he identifies himself as a citizen of Athens, we do not know how Strauss conceives of Jerusalemite engagement with Athens” (15). Is that really so? Could Strauss’s Maimonides not be exactly the “Jerusalemite engagement with Athens”? And, for that matter, what makes us so sure that Strauss was really a “citizen of Athens”? Could he not have been a “stranger” in Athens? 9 In my opinion, Bernstein never conclusively shows that Strauss became “a citizen of Athens.” Being a non-believer, even an atheist, does not place oneself automatically on the side of Athens: leaving aside medieval philosophers, there are plenty of counterexamples, from Spinoza to Freud and Einstein.10 When Strauss says that “the ‘pure reason’ in Plato’s sense is closer to the Bible than the ‘pure reason’ in Kant or, for that matter, Anaxagoras’s or Aristotle’s sense” (Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity 396, cited at 16) Bernstein concludes that “Strauss, as a citizen of Athens, would prefer Anaxagoras and Aristotle (we can also add here Farabi and Averroes) to the (mythical) narratives of Plato and the Bible”. But this is far from clear. Strauss may actually be much closer to Cohen (who sided with Plato and the Bible, on one side, against Aristotle and Averroes, on the other).

In what is the pièce de resistance of this rich book, Bernstein gives an exquisitely subtle and clever reading of Strauss’s What is Political Philosophy? as an enactment of the pas de deux between Athens and Jerusalem, focusing on its first essay, which Strauss delivered as lectures in Jerusalem. Bernstein is the first commentator, to my knowledge, [End Page 241] who investigates in great depth the meaning of Strauss delivering his lecture on “What is political philosophy?” precisely on a visit to Jerusalem. Since most Straussian interpreters agree that this question is key to Strauss’s oeuvre,11 the fact that he delivers this lecture in Jerusalem can mean one of two things: either that Strauss is indulging in the kind of “subversion” of the tradition that he says characterizes Machiavelli—which is how it is sometimes taken by Straussians, for instance Lampert—or that these Straussian interpreters do not understand the intention behind Strauss’s question, which essentially and internally requires its relation to Jerusalem. Only the second implication explains why Strauss says that “while being compelled, or compelling myself, to wander far away from our sacred heritage, or to be silent about it, I shall not for a moment forget what Jerusalem stands for” (What is Political Philosophy? 10, discussed on 65ff).

Bernstein argues that by posing the question “what is political philosophy?” “Strauss silently brings Athens into contact with Jerusalem such that potentially philosophical listeners [in Jerusalem] can recollect the distinction for themselves” (91). But the real question is: to what end does Strauss do this? Is it that Strauss (and for Bernstein this also means Maimonides) intends for potential philosophers among Jews to turn away from the Torah? Bernstein recognizes that for Strauss “only divine legislation can bring about an identity of justice and law” (103), but argues for that very reason his service to Jerusalem is “to preserve the theologico-political problem as a question by highlighting the responses to it given in the Jerusalem/Athens distinction” (103, emphasis mine). In other words, Strauss meant to highlight the fact that Athens gives a different response to divine law than the one coming from Jerusalem (represented by both Schmitt and Buber, who attempt to carry out a “theologisation of politics” and who according to Bernstein are the silent interlocutors in Strauss’s Jerusalem lectures).

But if the point of bringing Athens to Jerusalem is to teach Jews what Athens makes of divine law, then what is this Athenian teaching on divine law? Here Bernstein’s book remains too cryptic and allusive. He says that Maimonides, while “open to the claims of Jerusalem,” is that philosopher “who both rejects theocratic impulses and preserves the classical ordering principle of nature which includes an acknowledgment of nature’s limits (i.e. of chance)” (128). This seems to imply that an Athenian interpretation of divine law depends on a conception of natural law and avoids theocracy. If there is any criticism that can be levelled at Bernstein’s wonderful book is that it does not delve into a sustained exploration of what divine law means in both traditions. Only towards the end of the book is there a brief discussion of “natural law” or “law of reason” in Halevi, and thus also in Judaism. As is well known, Strauss says that the term “law of reason” denotes rational nomoi that address the necessities of living together, but also that there is [End Page 242] another part of the “law of reason” which is intended to lead to knowledge of God. Bernstein takes Strauss to mean “Aristotle’s God,” which is not the God of the prophets. But perhaps here Bernstein separates too quickly classical “natural law” from the God of Jerusalem, in more ways than one. Indeed, it is problematic to think that a reference to “Aristotle’s God” means a conception of God that is “politico-philosophical,” since, as Eric Peterson famously showed in Monotheism as a Political Problem, it is precisely Aristotle’s God (not to be confused with “Aristotle’s theology” which in fact was an Arabic compendium of the Enneads), rather than Plato’s or the prophets’ conceptions of God, that lies at the basis of Christian “political theology,” and Strauss was very clear already from Philosophy and Law that he rested great importance on the fact that Arab and Jewish philosophers, as opposed to Christian philosophers, gave a Platonic interpretation to divine law. More importantly, the goal of the divine law according to Maimonides is also intellectual perfection (which may or may not be Aristotelian in the end). All to say, in conclusion, that I am not certain that for Strauss, as Bernstein seems to be believe, “one cannot have ‘dual citizenship’” in Athens and Jerusalem. One would have to examine with more attention whether Strauss’s idea of natural right or natural law may not offer a pathway to this dual citizenship. Such a path, for instance, was arguably re-opened by Spinoza’s thinking of divine law as natural law.

Indeed, one of the merits of Bernstein’s book is that it concludes with a bold gesture, namely, by offering Strauss’s thought as a non-antagonistic connection of Maimonides with Spinoza. Unfortunately, he does not exploit this connection in order to think the relation between divine and natural laws. Instead, Bernstein employs it in order to provide a “liberal” approach to Strauss’s political philosophy and also to stage an explicit confrontation between the standpoints of political philosophy and political theology. For Bernstein “to be a citizen of Athens on the border of Jerusalem” means “to be a philosopher who rejects the claims of revelation but acknowledges the necessity of (and even need for) Jerusalem” (155). The reason is that “the philosopher may theoretically reject revelation but he or she cannot simply reject morality…. But morality is grounded, for Strauss, in (the belief in) the authority of law” (161), and thus is rooted in Jerusalem. But is it the case that the Maimonidean line reduces Jerusalem to morality? Does the Torah only allow for “the multitude’s acquiring correct opinions corresponding to their respective capacities” (Guide of the Perplexed, III,27 cited on 129), or does it also allow for the “ultimate perfection… to become rational in actu, I mean to have an intellect in actu” (ibid.; also, III:54)?

At one point, Bernstein quotes a remark that Strauss made about Maimonides: “If he had not brought the greatest sacrifice, he could not have defended the Torah against the philosophers as admirably as he did in his Jewish books” (What is Political Philosophy? 169 cited at 131). [End Page 243] Bernstein thinks this “sacrifice” consists in bringing “the fundamental distinction between Jerusalem and Athens to Jerusalem without simply resting in an affirmation of either side” (132). I think Strauss might have meant the opposite, namely that Maimonides sacrificed “the greatest” thing, namely, faith in God, precisely in order to defend the Torah as knowledge of God.

What Does Western Constitutionalism Owe to Christianity?

For the most part, Havers’ book is unpreoccupied with the role played by Judaism and Islam in Strauss’s political philosophy. His problem— which is today once again of burning actuality—is whether the western secular modern political order rests on Christian foundations or, conversely, whether secular constitutionalism disavows all religious foundations. Havers defends the first option: the foundations of Anglo-American democracy “are uniquely offered by Christianity (7), “a single religious faith” (8). He takes Strauss to defend the second option. For Havers Strauss is no anti-liberal. He writes, “I am inclined to believe that he shares some important assumptions with the Left” (4) because he interprets “the principles or foundations of Anglo-American democracy as philosophically eternal credos.” “Moreover, he accepts the leftist view that religion is dogma…. [and ignores] the best attempts of the Anglo-American tradition to defend religion—Christianity—as a quasi-rational influence that insists on the practice of charity (agape) in the political sphere” (10).

Havers claims that modern liberal democracy depends on Jerusalem having priority over Athens (70). He carries out an effective polemic against the prevailing Straussian interpretation on the grounds that “the American Founders did not think in Greek terms” (43). However, it is not just some Straussian interpreters who want to see the roots of modern constitutionalism in classical Greek political philosophy. This step was already taken by great constitutional thinkers like McIlwain in the 1940s in his classic Constitutionalism: Ancient and Modern, and McIlwain cannot be suspected of being either a Leftist or a Straussian. And, if only we are willing to admit that there is a lot of Plato in Cicero, then the argument in favor of the classical roots of modern constitutionalism is further strengthened by the neo-Roman construal of modern republicanism by the Cambridge School. Naturally, Havers can always respond that Madison and Kant were both keen to distinguish the democracy of ancient Athens from the modern republic born out of revolution, but by the same token he perhaps overstates his case when he then asserts that “The Federalist places reason in the hands of the people and pours scorn on the classical dream of rule at the hands of the few” (52). After all, it is precisely the design of a mechanism of representation to select a “natural aristocracy” that underpins [End Page 244] Strauss’s attribution to Jefferson of “the Greek belief in the ‘rule of the best’ over those who are, presumably, inferior by nature” (citing What is Political Philosophy? 86 where Strauss quotes from Jefferson’s letter to Adams, October 28, 1813 which mentions “a pure selection of [the] natural aristoi into offices of the government”). Likewise, if Havers is right that it was not the Federalists but “the opponents of Abraham Lincoln below the Mason-Dixon Line… [who] were quite happy to embrace Aristotle on their own illiberal terms” (55), it would have been appropriate to also cite Frederick Douglass on the much more frequent use of Christian theologemes (among them the racial and racist allegorical readings of the other son of Noah, namely Ham, who was taken to represent those peoples who belong neither to Jerusalem nor Athens and are therefore to be subjected to the kind of “civilizational” discourse characteristic of modern racism) employed to justify slavery in the American South.

But the main critique Havers directs at Strauss is that by rejecting historicism and turning to “classical political philosophy,” he enters into an aporia, since he cannot then explain “how an utterly modern philosophy like natural rights can spring from the works of a Greek philosopher who does not even refer to natural rights” (58). As a matter of fact, there is a solution to the aporia signaled by Havers—namely, the tradition of civil religion—even though I am not sure whether it is the solution that Strauss himself adopts. But before I formulate the alternative, it behooves me to discuss Havers conviction that only “the one tradition, Christianity… contributed to the rise of natural rights philosophy” (59).

Havers believes that Strauss construes the difference between Athens and Jerusalem as an opposition between reason and revelation in order to undermine the latter. “Strauss, we have seen, always claims that philosophy cannot refute revelation, but it is important to understand why he insists on this truth…. This statement reflects his enduring view that religion is dogma, and philosophy must treat it as such. The absolute divorce of reason from revelation is at the core of Strauss’s leftist position here.” (73) From the above discussion of Bernstein’s book, which shows Jerusalem’s openness to Athens, we can see that this reading of the tension between Athens and Jerusalem is better suited to Calvinism than either Judaism or Islam. For Havers Calvinism distinguishes true religion from superstition (77), and he believes that both Hobbes and Spinoza pick up on this Calvinist tenet. However, Havers seems to forget that in Spinoza’s Critique of Religion Strauss relies on Calvinist arguments to criticize Spinoza for using the distinction between reason and faith to downgrade the Bible to an infra-rational rather than a supra-rational status. For Strauss, unlike for Spinoza, the believer can know everything that the rational person knows, plus something supplementary. [End Page 245]

In any case, the heart of the book is found in the pages where Havers explains that Hobbes, Spinoza and Locke see that “biblical morality is crucial in keeping a stable political order from sliding back into the state of nature” (81). They give a “politicized reading of the Bible” (84) which underpins liberal democracy. Here Havers really comes very close to Schmitt’s line, according to which Hobbes is the founder of liberalism precisely because of his Christianity, meaning that in the last instance liberalism depends on a political theology. By way of contrast, he claims that for Strauss “the undeniable and overwhelming presence of biblical charity in the works of Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke and Montesquieu cannot possibly be sincerely believed, since, in Straussian terms, no true political philosopher is a believer.” (89) Havers is upset by “Strauss’s determination to portray the use of religion among modern political philosophers as purely political and cynical” (71). For him, Strauss first downplays the difference between religion and dogma, and second, he downplays the sincerity of Hobbes and Spinoza’s reduction of Christianity to charity. It is a pity that Havers never provides a close reading of Strauss’s two books on Hobbes, nor of his book on Spinoza which cover all this territory in ways that remain, to date, unsurpassed.

This is not the place to engage Strauss’s late theologico-political reading of Machiavelli and the finality it pursues (a theme that is also touched on by Howse). However, one thing is certain: Strauss avows the need for religion in any political founding, as Machiavelli’s conjuring of Moses and Numa makes clear. These figures, though, were tied together within a discourse on civil religion, and thus Strauss’s point, minimally, should be taken to be that if Hobbes and Spinoza are skeptical towards a Calvinist foundation of modern liberal democracy, their skepticism may be in favor of another option, that of civil religion.12 This conception sought to achieve two main tasks: first, to bring biblical charity together with classical republican virtues; second, to understand divine laws as philosophical or rational. Let me briefly say something on both counts.

As Rousseau argued in the chapter on civil religion that concludes The Social Contract, echoing both Hobbes and Spinoza, there is a contradiction in construing a Christian republicanism because the charity preached by Jesus is supra-political. In order to bring Jesus’s teaching on “divine natural right” into a form that is compatible with republicanism, “natural right” has to take the form of a “human (natural) right,” that is, it has to adopt the principle of toleration.13 This was the kind of reinterpretation of Christianity that Spinoza and Jefferson worked hard to develop. One can say that it required placing Jesus in line with prophets like Moses and Mohammed and with political philosophers like Plato within the horizon of what the Renaissance called “ancient theology” or pia philosophia. So, the trend is not to make religion [End Page 246] less philosophical but if anything, more philosophical or more reasonable.

Now, the great paradigm for this exercise is to formulate Judaism (and Islam) as religions of reason, which is roughly the strategy employed by Arabic and Jewish philosophers to whom Strauss dedicated so much attention. If this is correct, then Strauss’s attention to Judaism, his “openness to Jerusalem” has nothing to do with a pang of “historicist” conscience in Strauss, with “Strauss’s preoccupation with the survival of Judaism” (92) as an expression of fidelity to the “ancestral”. To the contrary, it signals Strauss’s radicalization of Cohen’s idea of Judaism as a religion of reason. Thus, I cannot agree with Havers’ claim that “nothing could be less Straussian than Cohen’s claim that ‘the concept of reason must engender the concept of religion’.” (93) I fear that here Havers simply misunderstands both Cohen and Strauss. Havers thinks that Strauss has a problem with Judaism as universalistic religion because “what worries Strauss here is that the historical particularity of Judaism will be lost in the liberal assimilation that Spinoza desired” (94). I am not entirely sure what Havers means by “historical particularity”—but if he is referring to the revelation of divine Law on Mt. Sinai, then the point of Judaism as a messianic tradition is precisely that this “particularistic” Law is not the law of a specific nation, but is that Law which shows the path for all nations towards a durable state of peace. Spinoza’s interpretation of Judaism remains well within the messianic interpretation of Judaism shared by Cohen, Rosenzweig, Buber and Scholem despite their obvious differences.

At one point Havers again repeats the point that Strauss is wrong to attack Spinoza’s “liberal theology” because the latter is “a major foundation of the Anglo-American democratic tradition… it is hard to imagine the universalism of Western democracy without its Christian foundation” (96). This statement leaves the reader perplexed: what kind of Christianity is Havers defending? Is it the Calvinist conception of Christianity or the rational and liberal one of Spinoza? For Spinoza’s “liberal theology” is hardly historicist or particularist. In the end, it is unclear how Havers wants to square his Christian historicism with Spinoza’s naturalism and universalism. Havers poses the right question: “how can an ethic of universal obligation—love of all humanity—be taught to all human beings if this ethic is based on a particular faith tradition” (155)? But he does not point to the most evident solution offered by the traditions of monotheism to this dilemma: namely, the messianic interpretations given to divine law. So, if it is formally correct to say that “if biblical morality is not natural (that is, known to all human beings by the sheer use of reason) then it must be revealed to all humanity by God—who, once again, is above nature” (161), this is only a first step. Things can by no means be left there precisely because if a particular revelation is designed for “all humanity” then it is [End Page 247] necessary to tie it back to what all humanity shares ab initio, and that is something natural. Thus, a second step would be to show that from a messianic standpoint, which is at once also a rational standpoint, the God of Creation and Nature’s God are closer than may be thought at first. It is therefore a pity that Havers never turns to Strauss’s treatment of Maimonides and al-Farabi to see whether and how it is possible to fit biblical morality together with a robust conception of nature.

Is Strauss a Thinker of the Rule of Law?

Howse’s book, like the previous two, situates Strauss on the center-left of the political spectrum. Unlike the other two, Howse’s main justification for this turns on his attempt to reconstruct Strauss’s mature views on international law and its tendency to act as a “gentle civilizer” of nations (see Koskenniemi, who is strangely never referenced by Howse). Interpreting his late writings on Thucydides and Athenian imperialism, on Machiavelli, and his lectures on Grotius and Kant, Howse argues that Strauss is a defender of the principles of international law as opposed to “power politics.” The novelty of this book, then, lies in the second part, where Howse projects onto Strauss some of the current concerns of international legal theory. Here the book is refreshing, if not entirely convincing, and adds to the composite picture of Strauss as a political “moderate” that emerges from the other two books. However, the first part of the book sees Howse embroiled in a defense of Strauss’s more radical pre-War reputation, in particular by analyzing Strauss’s lengthy engagement with Schmitt and Kojève. This part of the book, oddly spare in scholarly references, disappoints and falls below the level of scholarship that is to be expected at this point in the development of studies on Strauss.

Howse understands Strauss as being involved in a combat with “Machiavelli and Machiavellians of the right (represented by the fascist/Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt) and the left (represented by Strauss’s friend, the Marxist-Hegelian philosopher Alexandre Kojève)” (2). The reason that Strauss spent so much time and energy fighting this philosophical combat is, according to Howse, that “as a young man” he was indeed anti-liberal, but after leaving Germany in 1933 he sided with “classical republican theory.” In reality this book says nothing further about republicanism, whether ancient or modern (of course, the main line of transmission of the two traditions is none other than Machiavelli, but Howse ignores this inconvenient fact). Instead, Howse focuses on Strauss’s preoccupation with the “city at war” in the 1950s and 1960s, and therefore with Schmittian themes like the friend/enemy distinction, the decision on the state of exception, and the like. He cites Strauss’s letter to Hasso Hoffmann of 1965 where he reaffirms “the very great importance of Schmitt’s work” (cited on 11). [End Page 248] The question, of course, is why Schmitt remains so critical for Strauss throughout his career. Howse’s explanation is psychological: “He sought, through writing as he did, to show how his youthful temptation toward fascist thought was motivated by high-minded considerations, no matter how misguided, and to atone before God and the Jewish people, through providing a critique of the kind of thought represented by German nihilism, which would be persuasive to others who might be tempted by similar motives” (13). Unfortunately, this book drops God and Judaism as soon as they are mentioned (14), and we are left with the pure combat (for the sake of combat?) of Strauss against Schmitt and his “warrior morality.” Howse never asks what resources from Judaism (or even religion) are brought to play in Strauss’s political thought. Thus, his central hypothesis is quite curious: Strauss makes a turn towards God that is accomplished without appealing to God. One would be tempted to say at this point that Howse has unconsciously adopted Altman’s claim that Strauss proposes a “Judaism without God”.

Having no recourse to Jerusalem, Howse argues that Strauss enacts “a kind of t’shuvah, a pulling back from the extreme through critique, often internal, of the extreme… [His work] has the result of re-establishing the case for moral-political limits and for legality, hence moderation in Strauss’s sense” (16). The central problem with Howse’s book is that he conceives of these “moral-political limits” and of the “legality” that Strauss upholds (despite siding, in an internally critical way, with Schmitt’s theory of the exception) entirely without relation to the problem of divine nomoi which Strauss admitted to be central to his development since the 1930s. Thus, we see in Howse an attempt to moderate Machiavellianism by applying Strauss’s reading of Thucydides and Grotius. For this reason, his use of the trope of t’shuvah is rather empty and non-Jewish: it has nothing to do with the use of the term by Strauss himself.14 Howse is nevertheless convinced that Strauss “ends up with a subtle and sober case for constitutionalism and the rule of law that turns the Schmittian attack on its head” (16). Let’s see whether this is really the case.

Howse’s story starts late, namely, in the 1930s with Strauss’s first open engagement with Schmitt in his well-known review essay on The Concept of the Political. He thus seems to concede Strauss’s early involvement with right-wing Zionist movements and the complicated politics of the 1920s detailed in works by Altman and Dotti, among many others.15 But he disagrees violently with those who have read Strauss’s review as anything but a dismissal of Schmitt. He launches an ad hominem attack on Heinrich Meier for having brought out the intensity of the connection between Strauss and Schmitt (27), despite the fact that Meier goes out of his way to find ways to detach Strauss from Schmitt.16 Howse even claims that Schmitt only wrote Strauss a [End Page 249] letter of recommendation to study Hobbes in England because “given his [anti-Semitic] attitude toward Jewish scholars at the time, it is not so surprising that Schmitt would have been happy to facilitate in the early 1930s Strauss getting out of Germany” (27). This odd explanation is not only contradicted by Schmitt’s admiration for Strauss, but also by Löwith’s claim that Schmitt never carried out his theory of enmity into private relationships. In a 1935 essay on Schmitt, Löwith wrote: “an analogous situation is present today in the problem of the Jews, a problem which has become political and whose characteristic case is that of anti-Semites who are friendly toward Jews; these are people who publicly are enemies of Judaism and who privately are friends of Jews (on this see Schmitt’s dedication to his Verfassungslehre and his study of Däubler’s Nordlicht).”17 In general, Howse tends to downplay the fact that Schmitt, Strauss, and Kojève deeply engaged with each other’s work and displayed mutual respect despite taking political positions that are entirely opposed.18 It is fairly typical of their “philosophical” attitude towards political affiliations that Kojève would simultaneously lecture the “generation of 68” in Paris and plan a visit to Schmitt, the only philosopher he deemed “worth talking to” in Germany. For that matter, Schmitt was flattered that his “theory of the partisan” was taken up by the German extra-parliamentary Left in the 60s and 70s.

Howse needs Strauss to be radically opposed to Schmitt, despite all evidence to the contrary, because he believes that Schmitt stands for “warrior morality and nihilism” (29ff) whereas Strauss purportedly rejects wholesale this kind of morality and instead sides with civilization, “strongly associated with the love of peace, whereas the politics of culture are associated with war and conflict.” (31) It is slightly ironical that Howse here employs the distinction between culture and civilization that is essentially related to classical German philosophy, from Goethe to Nietzsche. But it is more problematic that he fails to register the tension between the moral standpoint of Jerusalem and the very distinction between “culture and civilization.” Indeed, civilization is always associated in German philosophy with Rome and the pax romana, not with Athens nor with Jerusalem, and an echo of this usage is still found in Buber’s and Levinas’ oppositions of Judaism to “civilization” and civilizational discourses. The fact that, in the infamous letter to Löwith that Howse interprets, Strauss appeals to Roman “fascist, authoritarian and imperial principles” to block Hitler rather than to “Christian” human rights is more than anything a provocative and heretical call for a “romanized” form of Judaism.19

Howse takes his starting point from a lecture by Strauss given in New York in 1941 entitled “German Nihilism” which was an analysis of the so-called “conservative revolution” in Germany, associated with Heidegger, Schmitt, and Jünger. In this lecture, Strauss makes the point [End Page 250] that German “nihilists” do not love war as much as morality (cited on p. 29). This is the same argument found in his earlier review essay on Schmitt. Indeed, although Howse speaks in this context of the “non-mercenary morality” of German nihilism (30) which is characterized by its “atheistic standpoint”, and he correctly indicates that Strauss’s point in the lecture is to show that these thinkers do not believe it is possible to return to a pre-modern horizon in which “God is still felt to be present” (30), he forgets to add that Strauss also says that “traditional Jewish morality is not mercenary: ‘the reward for the [fulfilment of the commandment] is the commandment’” (“Preface to Spinoza’s Critique of Religion” in Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity, 171).

Howse rightly points out that Meier does not thematize “all of Strauss’s Jewish interlocutors” (28), of which Buber would be a major one, but neither does Howse. In a long footnote on p. 33 (fn. 16) he attacks Meier’s opposition of faith and reason on the grounds that “because the quest for wisdom remains open to the possibility that it is faith and not reason that may be what is ultimately needful and because revealed religion, as Strauss knows, always welcomes the return of those who have lost their faith or the conversion of those who have found it, there is no need for a blind decision between faith and reason as Meier suggests.” This bland acknowledgment of the problem of Athens and Jerusalem does not answer the crucial question, namely, whether the “nonmercenary morality” that Strauss is after in returning to a pre-modern horizon requires belief in God and divine laws, and, if so, in what form. “Finally, as for Schmitt, Strauss never for a moment viewed him as a ‘political theologian’ but rather always as an example of that form of political atheism that he labelled German nihilism” (p. 34, see also 39). In his 1997 article Howse says that “in any case, there is no transcendent morality that vindicates human seriousness behind the thought of Schmitt…. Schmitt was not waiting for a god, but rather a Führer who would combine animal vitality with Christian probity” (91). This kind of statement not only shows ignorance about Schmitt’s thought, which always maintained the necessity of opening the political to a moment of transcendence, as is generally recognized by serious Schmitt scholarship, but it also betrays a lack of imagination in believing that the problem of nihilism is somehow separate and opposed to that of political theology, just as it is mistaken to want to separate atheism from religion in the early 20th century. This is to forget that German Jewish philosophy during the Weimar period was perhaps the main laboratory for working out the issue of “religious atheism” from Rosenzweig to Benjamin, and finds one of its highpoints in Strauss himself. In a famous letter of 1935, Scholem reports to Benjamin about Strauss’s Philosophy and Law, “the book begins with an unfeigned and copiously argued (if completely ludicrous) affirmation of atheism as the most important Jewish watchword.” One should remember that [End Page 251] Benjamin had himself espoused “nihilism” as the only method for cosmopolitanism: “For nature is messianic by reason of its eternal and total passing away. To strive after such passing … is the task of world politics, whose method must be called nihilism.” Benjamin himself had no compunction in citing extensively from Schmitt’s work for his habilitation, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, despite having already turned towards communism.20

According to Howse, Strauss began to “turn from Nietzsche and antiliberalism” when “he began seriously to study the Jewish and Arab philosophers of the Middle Ages” (34). A reasonably careful reading of the “Introduction” to Philosophy and Law would cast into doubt this assertion. But, be that as it may, Howse never seeks to verify whether Strauss’s turn to Maimonides is or not “Nietzschean,” nor does he attempt to connect the texts in which Strauss addresses Schmittian issues to texts in which he works out his new interpretation of medieval philosophy: the trend started in the early 1930s continues straight through the 1940s and culminates in Natural Right and History as well as What is Political Philosophy? In what seems to be a non-sequitur, Howse instead refers to a letter to Löwith of 1932 where Strauss writes that “I find [in the Greeks] all elements of a humanism, a human philosophy of/for human beings”. How this recovery of Plato and Aristotle is related to Arab and Jewish medieval thought remains unclear—and yet it is an essential question, for if Strauss returns to Plato thanks to Al-Farabi, it would be rash to assume that “all elements of a humanism” refers to a philosophy deprived of God or theology or revelation, as Howse implies (36).

Howse’s thesis is that, like Schmitt, Strauss was critical of Kelsen and legal positivism, but unlike Schmitt, “the inadequacy of legal positivism to subdue human dangerousness… does not for Strauss lead in the direction of decisionism or nihilism but rather to a reconsideration of the positivists’ rejection of natural right, which cannot be fully positivized, ‘cannot be fully coded juridically in an unambiguous manner but that does provide… unambiguous directives for deciding all fundamental questions’.” (37) It is surprising that Howse forgets to mention that in the above cited phrase Strauss is evidently referring to the Platonic critique of rule by laws found in the Statesman and the Laws, according to which the wise man is always above the (positive) laws because he is a “living law.” This Platonic critique was already adopted by Hegel in his early essay on natural right, referenced by Rosenzweig’s Hegel and the State, and thus certainly known to Strauss from early on, much before his “reorientation” toward Platonic political philosophy. Thus, there is an extremely close relation between the turn backwards to Platonic natural right and the problematization of positive laws with the problem of sovereignty and state of exception thematized by Schmitt. Indeed, this turn towards Plato and Aristotle [End Page 252] was already evidenced in Schmitt himself in those very years (1933– 1934) when he was pursuing the Greek idea of nomos (or “concrete orders”) in order to counteract Kelsenian legal formalism as well as decisionism.21 By this I do not imply that Strauss and Schmitt had the same conception of classical natural right, but it is absurd to deny that they were looking at exactly the same texts in order to attack Kelsen’s critique of natural right, which Kelsen always thought was a justification for autarchy rather than democracy.

We thus arrive at the question of what Strauss’s critique of Schmitt really means. Howse dedicates it a couple of pages, where he reiterates his previous interpretation of twenty years ago. Given the volumes of ink spilled on this text since, it is somewhat surprising that Howse only mentions one piece of secondary literature. The crux of the matter, for Howse, is that Strauss accuses Schmitt of sharing Hobbes’s idea of the state of nature, in which the human being is “evil” in an “innocent” way, namely, in a way that can be mastered by moving to a civil society—and thus Schmitt will not be able to criticize one of the features of this civil society, namely, human rights against sovereignty. (Schmitt responds to this Straussian reading in his Hobbes book—where he argues, against Strauss, that only Spinoza draws that conclusion, not Hobbes.) Now, for Howse, what Strauss means is that this “innocent” idea of human nature and human evil takes as unnecessary any “prior obligation that limits the claims based on the passions” in the state of nature. In other words, Howse thinks that Strauss is opposing Schmitt by pointing out that in a state of nature there is already “natural law”. Even if this moral reading of Strauss’s understanding of the state of nature were correct, one would still need to ask: on what is such a “natural” morality based? The only answer would be some form of teaching on “divine laws” as sole basis of “nonmercenary morality,” as Bernstein and Havers both recognize. In that case, Strauss would have to engage in some form of political theology—something that Howse denies, not out of any perusal of the textual evidence, but simply out of his misconstrual of the relation between Strauss and Schmitt.

Despite the ample evidence that Strauss turns to classical natural right in order to address the very same problems raised by Schmitt, Howse claims that “far from reinterpreting the classics as proto-Schmittian, Strauss seeks to show that, although not in the least naïve about the hard political difficulties pointed to by Schmitt, the classics pointed to answers that did not lead to undermining constitutionalism and the rule of law or sanctioning autocracy” (49). The key argument is found in Howse’s reading of Strauss’s On Tyranny. In his early article on which he still relies in the new book, Howse puts emphasis on Strauss’s point that in Plato the “premise that those who rule absolutely will be wise” is coupled with the appeal to “consent” alongside wisdom as necessary for rule of the wise to be accepted by the many (97, [End Page 253] citing Natural Right and History 141). Then Howse adds his own take on what this can mean: “The many are unlikely to be able to consent to the absolute rule of the wise because the genuinely wise are unlikely to present themselves as candidates for the position” (97). In the new book, he says that Strauss employs “the Platonic view that only the wise can assert a title to rule absolutely as a foil” (49). These claims seem to fly in the face of a Greek tradition in which philosophers regularly presented themselves as lawgivers (Pythagoras, Empedocles, Democritus, Solon, etc.); Plato tried to do the same in Syracuse, just as Aristotle did with Alexander. But, above all, even if it is the case that in Athens the “many” may have rejected this self-presentation of philosophy (and thus in the end also killed Socrates despite the latter’s prudence), it is sufficient to look at Jerusalem to see an example where “the many” did accept the guidance of a prophet-philosopher-king, namely, Moses.

Disregarding previous scholarship on Tyranny that has highlighted how close Strauss’ preoccupations in this text are to Schmitt’s conceptual universe,22 Howse puts forward his thesis that Strauss’ ultimate aim is not the Socratic tyrannical teaching that he is trying to faithfully reconstruct, but rather its “deconstruction”! Since On Tyranny states that “tyranny may live up to the highest political standards”; that between Socrates’s and Machiavelli’s teaching there is merely “the subtlest and indeed decisive difference” (OT 75, 27); and that the “beneficent tyrant” is “the tyrant who listens to the counsels of the wise” (OT 74–5), Howse argues that Strauss did not mean what he said because “if legitimacy is a matter of openness of the ruler or ruling elements of the political community to wisdom… then a ruler who is warlike… would be least legitimate because he is at least open to influence by the unwarlike ‘wise’… : the city at peace or ruled by those whose character is predominantly peace loving or peace seeking is inherently more open to wisdom or reason than the warlike city or the city at war.” (59). In other words, Howse appears to contradict himself: he first argues that Strauss cannot uphold the Platonic wish that a philosopher encounter the right sort of tyrant (despite Laws book IV) because tyrants are warlike and philosophers are lovers of peace; then, to prove this, he refers to the possibility of wise men ruling the city at peace. So Howse both denies and affirms the philosopher-king option.

At bottom, the connection Howse makes between the idea of the Platonic philosopher-king and peace is nonsense: even if one disregards Plato’s advocacy of “purging” the city in both Laws and Statesman, it is enough to cite Al-Farabi who shows, first, that Plato teaches “the idea of the Philosopher, Supreme Ruler, Prince, Legislator, and Imam is but a single idea” (iv, 43, 15ff), and, second, that: “Man’s specific perfection is called supreme happiness, and to each man, according to his rank in the order of humanity, belongs the specific supreme happiness pertaining [End Page 254] to this kind of man. The warrior who pursues this purpose is the just warrior, and the art of war that pursues this purpose is the just and virtuous art of war.” (I, iii, 32, 12–17; cited on p. 37) In reality, Howse is unable to provide an argument as to why “constitutionalism” is really what Plato aims for: “The ‘theoretical’ insight that the judgment of the wise man in each case as to what is good for each individual is superior to the rule of law [NB Howse has as yet not discussed nor cited a single Platonic passage], which seemingly invites unlimited transgression of the law and even dispensing with the rule of law, now leads back to the rule of law. Here we see clearly the operation of Strauss’s philosophical version of t’shuvah” (61). The reader can peruse Howse’s text at great length and she will never find where this “t’shuvah” is located or explained. “One embraces the temptation of the thinker toward absolute rule [Plato]… then one engages in a radical questioning that reveals the shaky assumptions of that temptation [i.e., Howse’s illation that philosophers seek peace], namely, the likelihood of rule of the wise or of tyrants who have common cause with the wise. This produces the ‘return’ to constitutionalism and the rule of law.” Maybe in Howse’s mind “this produces” such a result, but certainly not in Strauss’s text.

In the second half of the book, Howse applies his saltum mortale approach to Straussian hermeneutics on Thoughts on Machiavelli and City and Man and on some of his later lectures on Grotius and Kant (which are not yet publicly accessible in print form). The centerpiece here is a comparison between Strauss’s reading of Machiavelli and his reading of Thucydides. In a nutshell, Howse wants to show that where Machiavelli counsels against keeping pacts between nations when they are clearly detrimental to one party, Thucydides, so Howse, instead holds firm to the “morality” of the principle pacta sum servanda and to the ancient jus gentium. Now, since Thucydides famously uses fictional dialectical set pieces to reflect on the meaning of events, it is quite hard to claim that one particular speaker reflects his thought. However, Howse is absolutely convinced that the speech of Diodotus in the Mytilenian debate reflects not only Thucydides’ but also Strauss’s position. Howse argues as follows: “The peak of Thucydides work, according to Strauss, is the attempt to recover the spirit of the divine law—moderation—on the plane not of Spartan piety but of enlightened Athenian humanity. … A moderation inspired by a philosophical view of the human condition rather than one backed by piety or fear of the divine. The speech suggests the possibility that the specifically Jewish conception of t’shuvah has a root in an experience of humanity or the human condition that is, at a minimum, common to the Greek world as well that of revealed religion—and potentially universal” (139). Howse believes that Diodotus “suggests a lesser degree of responsibility for breaching the treaty once the necessity represented by the natural compulsion to revolt against rule by others—freedom—is [End Page 255] balanced against the necessity of trust, represented by the principle of pacta sunt servanda.” (140) That may be so, but probably not for the reasons adduced by Howse, which point towards a moral sense in Diodotus based on “radical insight into the nature of human things” (here, the belief that “the impulse of the dominated to emancipation is as great a thing as the impulse of the strong to dominate them,” 141— which would seem to repeat Machiavelli’s idea that the desire to rule is always contrasted by the desire not to be ruled!), and “such moderation is what could substitute for the traditional divine law as a support for humanity and gentleness even under great power-political pressures” (141). This all sounds quite unconvincing. If one actually goes back to read the speech of Diodotus one sees that his standpoint is precisely a thorough-going skepticism of the power of laws to contain the hopes and ambitions of states, the passions of “human nature,” coupled with the belief that “we should recognize that the proper basis of our security is in good administration rather than in the fear of legal penalties” (III, 46,4).23 After all, Diodotus is the one who also says: “although the right course with freemen is not to chastise them rigorously when they do rise, but rigorously to watch them before they rise, and to prevent their ever entertaining the idea, and, the insurrection suppressed, to make as few responsible for it as possible” (III,46,6). Strauss may have considered this to be sound advice in the age of the Cold War.

Unfortunately, Howse never provides a proper discussion of the distinction between natural right or divine law and jus gentium or law of peoples in Strauss. He comes closest when commenting on Strauss’s description of Grotius, according to whom “international right can only be ‘approached on the basis of what human reason tells everyone, and therefore there is a close connection between international law and natural law’” (158). Howse adds that this entails “an explicit separation of natural right from theology” (158). Indeed, it is typical for Grotius to be placed quite close to Hobbes’s conception of natural right and natural law, so it is to be doubted that Strauss saw something much different in Grotius than what he had seen in his theologico-political readings of Hobbes (which Howse never discusses), namely, an artfully disguised atheistic and ultimately amoral standpoint on natural right. In any case, this kind of separation between modern natural law and theology says nothing against political theology, since Strauss worked out his readings of Hobbes in a continued discussion with Schmitt’s interpretations, and it was Schmitt himself who, in his treatise on international law that preceded by decades Strauss’s own lectures on international law, cited Alberico Gentili’s silete theologi in munere alieno, questioning the legitimacy of theologians pronouncing themselves on questions of just war, as a basic principle of modern international law. [End Page 256]


Taken together, these three books have the merit of jointly pointing to the centrality of the problem of divine laws in Strauss’s Platonic political philosophy. However, none of them quite take the bull by the horns and develop Strauss’s beliefs on divine law, on the ancient nomoi, and their relation to his critique of modern jurisprudence. All of this would have been necessary for the reader to be able to judge whether his later reflections on international law discussed by Howse really depart from his youthful critiques of the rule of law, or whether Strauss really maintained a “Leftist” disdain for the political uses of religion as Havers maintains, or, finally, whether Strauss really thought that all forms of divine law are ultimately hostile to philosophical activity as Bernstein intimates. To unravel the many riddles of Strauss’s position three aspects will need to be further investigated and thought together by future Strauss interpreters. First, with respect to what Howse’s book effectively shows, one has to admit that the “ghostly” presence of Schmitt, and in particular his turn toward an idea of “concrete” and “normative” order (nomos), makes itself felt everywhere and up to the very end in Strauss’s thought. Second, with respect to what Havers’ book effectively shows, one has to take seriously the solution of civil religion to the problem of how one can unite divinely revealed laws and republican political orders, as well as explore the presence of this motif in Strauss. Third, with respect to what Bernstein’s book effectively shows, one has to try to turn the tables on the typical Straussian atheist interpretation and pose the following question: assuming that Maimonides is both an atheist and a defender of Jerusalem, then what is the value of atheism (and, why not, also of nihilism) to Jerusalem?

Miguel Vatter

Miguel Vatter is Professor of Politics in the School of Social Sciences, University of New South Wales, Australia. His main areas of research and writing are: republicanism, biopolitics and political theology. His most recent books are The Republic of the Living. Biopolitics and the Critique of Civil Society (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014) and Machiavelli’s The Prince. A Reader’s Guide (London: Bloomsbury, 2013). Miguel can be reached at


1. All three have written reviews of William H.F. Altman’s The German Stranger: Leo Strauss and National Socialism (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011) which is the climax of this phase of Strauss reception: Jeffrey Bernstein, “William H.F. Altman’s The German Stranger,” Interpretation 39:3 (2012), 195–212; Grant Havers, “The Final Volley in the Strauss Wars?” The European Legacy: Toward New Paradigms 18:1 (2013), 78–82; Robert Howse, “Misreading Leo Strauss” Policy Review, December 2012/January 2013.

2. Richard Rorty, “Religion as a Conversation-stopper” in Philosophy and Social Hope (London: Penguin, 1999), 168–174.

3. For the latest reiteration, see Laurence Lampert, The Enduring Importance of Leo Strauss (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

4. For other recent and important attempts in this direction, see the dossier “New Directions in the Thought of Leo Strauss” edited by Jeffrey Bernstein in Idealistic Studies 44:2–3 (2014) with essays by Thomas Meyer, “The Origins of Leo Strauss’s Political Philosophy” (209–224) and Dana Hollander, “Understanding Law (‘Gesetz’ and ‘Recht’) in Hermann Cohen, with Help from the [End Page 257] Early Strauss” (263–280). See also Benjamin Lazier, “On the Origins of ‘Political Theology’: Judaism and Heresy between the World Wars” New German Critique 35:3 (2008), 143–164.

5. See for instance Kenneth Hart Green, Jew and Philosopher: The Return of Moses Maimonides in the Jewish Thought of Leo Strauss (Albany: SUNY Press, 1993); Eugene Sheppard, Leo Strauss and the Politics of Exile. The Making of a Political Philosopher (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2006); Leora Batnitzky, Leo Strauss and Emanuel Levinas: Philosophy and the Politics of Revelation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); David Janssens, Between Athens and Jerusalem: Philosophy, Prophecy, Politics in Leo Strauss’s Early Thought (Albany: SUNY Press, 2008); Daniel Tanguay, Leo Strauss: An Intellectual Biography (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007); Corinne Pelluchon, Leo Strauss une autre raison d’autres Lumières. Essai sur la crise de la rationalité contemporaine (Paris: Vrin, 2005).

6. Leo Strauss, Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity (Albany: SUNY Press, 1997), 117 (cited on p. xix).

7. Additionally, Judaism has for centuries housed an on-going debate as to the relative merits and dangers of Hellenism for Judaism. These two distinct principles are traditionally traced back to an allegorical reading of the two sons of Noah, Japheth and Shem and the verse in Genesis 9:27: “May God enlarge Japheth and let him dwell in the tents of Shem, and let Canaan be a slave to them”. On the resurgence of these motifs in 19th century Jewish Orthodoxy of Luzzatto and Hirsch, see recently Michah Gottlieb, “Counter-Enlightenment in a Jewish Key. Anti-Maimonideanism in 19th Century Orthodoxy” in idem., Faith, Reason, Politics. Essays on the History of Jewish Thought (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2013), ch.5 passim.

8. See Carlos Fraenkel, Philosophical Religions from Plato to Spinoza: Reason, Religion and Autonomy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

9. Bernstein could have questioned further the problem of being a “stranger” in the human world(s). Among other things, this would have required him to confront Altman’s strong hypothesis regarding the role of the (Eleatic and Athenian) strangers in Plato’s dialogues and thus also in Strauss. On Altman’s reading, the Platonic Stranger always brings an anti-Socratic teaching, an immoral teaching, that Plato’s Socrates tries to counteract (The German Stranger, 461–489). However, Platonic philosophy does not have a privileged relation to the discourse on strangers: in Natural Right and History Strauss says that natural right “alienates the people from their place on earth” (13), a claim that would be familiar within Judaism.

10. Gottlieb cites Hirsch’s saying that “every new discovery made even by an atheist scientist, is, nevertheless, a homage to the God of Shem whom the narrow-minded scientist sneeringly repudiates” (Gottlieb, Faith, Reason, Politics, 169).

11. I refer to my review essay on Michael and Catherine Zuckert, Leo Strauss and the Problem of Political Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014) in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews (November 2014).

12. On the history of this concept, see Mark Silk “Numa Pompilius and the Idea of Civil Religion in the West” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 72:4 (2004), 863–896; Ronald Beiner, Civil Religion. A Dialogue in the History of political Philosophy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Miguel Vatter, “Introduction,” in Crediting God. Sovereignty and Religion in the Age of Global Capitalism, ed. Miguel Vatter (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011). [End Page 258]

13. See here on the history of toleration and its two main strands (Locke and Bayle), Reiner Forst, Toleration in Conflict: Past and Present (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

14. Howse’s first attempt at giving his opinion on the Strauss-Schmitt relation is from an article published in 1997, “From Dictatorship to Legitimacy—and Back Again: Leo Strauss’s Critique of the Anti-Liberalism of Carl Schmitt” Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence (January 1997), in a special issue devoted to Carl Schmitt and edited by David Dyzenhaus. He refers to this piece, whose theses he picks up again in this book, on p.37, n.22. Interestingly enough, in this article he never mentions this Jewish element, the t’shuvah, and its significance for Strauss’s engagement with Schmitt. Howse seems to be unawares that in the same year my article on Strauss and Schmitt, in the form of a critique of Meier’s book, places the t’shuvah at the heart of Strauss’s concerns. See Miguel Vatter, “Taking Exception to Liberalism: Heinrich Meier’s Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss: The Hidden Dialogue” Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal, vol.19, n.2 (1997).

15. I refer to the important dossier on Strauss and Schmitt edited by Jorge Dotti in Deus mortalis. Cuaderno de Filosofía Política n.8 (2009), in particular to the essay by Dotti himself, “Jahvé, Sion, Schmitt. Las tribulaciones del joven Strauss” (147–240) and also to that of Jean-Francois Kervégan, “Qué significa ser un teólogo de la jurisprudencia? (91–102).

16. The importance of this relation was already documented in John Gunnell, “Strauss before Straussianism: Reason, Revelation and Nature” Review of Politics 53:1 (Winter 1991), 53–74, although it was much more muted than in Meier.

17. Karl Löwith, “The Occasional Decisionism of Carl Schmitt” in Martin Heidegger and European Nihilism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 278.

18. Jan-Werner Müller calls them “friendly philosophical adversaries” in A Dangerous Mind. Carl Schmitt in Post-War European Thought (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 93.

19. For a recent work on this context, see now Sam Moyn, Christian Human Rights (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).

20. Walter Benjamin, “Theologico-Political Fragment” in Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, eds. Walter Benjamin. Selected Writings. Volume 3 1935– 1938 (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2002), 305–7. For the letter to Scholem, see the discussion in Benjamin Lazier, God Interrupted. Heresy and the European Imagination between the World Wars (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 111–126.

21. See Carl Schmitt, Über die drei Arten des rechtswissenschaftlichen Denkens (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1993); and now Mika Ojakangas, “Carl Schmitt and the Sacred Origins of Law” Telos 147 (Summer 2009): 34–54.

22. I refer to my article for those interested in the pertinent literature: “Natural Right and States of Exception in Leo Strauss” in Crediting God, 190–206.

23. Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner (New York: Penguin, 1972), 221. [End Page 259]

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