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The Straussian Maimonides

April 15, 2013

Is there a more fascinating mid-century political philosopher than Leo Strauss?  He certainly ranks as an influential thinker.  He left a clear mark on American conservatism.  His writings have influenced an entire generation of classicists.  He is closely associated with any number of repeating themes:  “the theologico-political predicament of modernity,” “the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns,” “philosophy and the city,” and “the moral argument for revelation.”

If you are not familiar with Strauss’s work, Leora Batnitzky’s summary article is a great place to start.

Still, it is probably still too early to assess Strauss’s impact.  There is still great division among Straussians, as indicated in the title Harry Jaffa’s brilliant Crisis of the Strauss Divided (punning on the title Jaffa’s famous book on the Lincoln-Douglas debates:  Crisis of the House Divided.)

For me, two of the most interesting themes in Strauss are his:

  • Discussion of esotericism in the writing of pre-modern philosophers, a theme developed in Strauss’s Persecution and the Art of Writing.  By esoteric writing, Strauss is referring to writing that does not state its theme explicitly, but rather through hints and contradictions, causes a sufficiently mature reader to understand the secrets hidden in the work. In Persecution and the Art of Writing, Strauss particularly studies Maimonides, Judah Halevi, and Spinoza.
  • Discussion of the difference between the Christian reception of Aristotle (as represented, for example, by Aquinas) from the Jewish reception of Aristotle (influenced by Averroes, and represented by Halevi and Maimonides).  Strauss says the “Jewish Aristotelians” read Aristotle through Plato’s Laws, and thus have a Platonic perspective that the Christian reading lacks.  The Jewish philosophers thus recognize the tension between “philosophy and the city.”  This theme is particularly developed in Natural Right and History.

Again, Maimonides is a central figure in both of these arguments. 

My first introduction to Strauss came from reading the Shlomo Pines’s English translation of Maimonides’s The Guide of the Perplexed (currently published in two volumes:  1, 2).  The translation is preceded by a lengthy essay by Strauss:  “How to Begin to Study The Guide of the Perplexed” in which Strauss gives evidence for his view of Maimonides as an esoteric author. 

Now Kenneth Hart Green has done a great service for the reading public by collecting the complete Straussian writings on Maimonides; including writings not previously published and writings not previously available in English.  (Green has a forthcoming companion book containing his own analysis entitled Leo Strauss and the Rediscovery of Maimonides, presumably a further development of the thesis Green introduced in Jew and Philosopher:  The Return to Maimonides the Thought of Leo Strauss.  Not also Green’s previous anthology of Straussian writings on Jewish philosophy – albeit one that does not claim to be complete.)  Here are the contents of Leo Strauss on Maimonides:  The Complete Writings:

  • A 21-page editor’s preface, 3 page acknowledgments, and 87 page editor’s introduction, all by Green.
  • Strauss’s “How to Study Medieval Philosophy,” revised from Strauss’s original manuscript (an earlier, less accurate version of the lecture appeared in The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism.)
  • Strauss’s “Spinoza’s Critique of Maimonides” from Spinoza’s Critique of Religion.
  • Strauss’s “[Hermann] Cohen and Maimonides” appearing in English for the first time.
  • Strauss’s “The Philosophic Foundation of the Law:  Maimonides’s Doctrine of Prophecy and its Sources” from Philosophy and the Law:  Contributions to the Understanding of Maimonides and His Predecessors.
  • Strauss’s “Some Remarks on the Political Science of Maimonides and Farabi” revised from  a translation that appeared in 1990 in English translation in the journal Interpretation, and has not been previously anthologized.
  • Strauss’s “The Place of the Doctrine of Providence according to Maimonides” revised from a translation that appeared in 2004 in English translation in the journal Review of Metaphysics and has not been previously anthologized.
  • Strauss’s “Review of The Mishneh Torah, Book 1, by Moses Maimonides, Edited according to the Bodleian Codex with Introductions, Biblical and Talmudical References, Notes and English Translation by Moses Hyamson,” from a 1937 issue of the journal Review of Religion and has not been previously anthologized.
  • Strauss’s “The Literary Character of The Guide of the Perplexed” from Persecution and the Art of Writing with revised notes.
  • Strauss’s “Maimonides Statement on Political Science” is from What is Political Philosophy? with revised notes.
  • Strauss’s “Introduction to Maimonides’ The Guide of the Perplexed” transcribed from tapes and appearing in print for the first time.
  • Strauss’s “How to Begin to Study The Guide of the Perplexed” revised from Strauss’s introduction to Pines’s translation (also in Liberalism Ancient and Modern).
  • Strauss’s “Notes on Maimonides’s Book of Knowledge”  revised from a volume in honor of Gershom Scholem (also in Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy).
  • Strauss’s “Notes on Maimonides’s Treatise on the Art of Logic” revised from Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy.
  • Strauss’s “On Abravanel’s Philosophical Tendency and Political Teaching” revised from the essay that originally appeared in a long-out-of-print 1937 anthology.
  • “Appendix:  The Secret Teaching of Maimonides” which is an unpublished fragment recently found in the Leo Strauss archives at the University of Chicago.

Altogether, this is a remarkable collection, and will be of interest to anyone interested in Strauss, Maimonides, esoteric writing, or the tension between religion and philosophy.

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