- Must God be a Conversation-stopper for the Political Philosopher? Leo Strauss on Philosophy, Religion and Legality
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...