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Athens, Jerusalem, Mecca: Leo Strauss's "Muslim" Understanding of Greek Philosophy Author(s): Rémi Brague Source: Poetics Today

, Vol. 19, No. 2, Hellenism and Hebraism Reconsidered: The Poetics of Cultural Influence and Exchange II (Summer, 1998), pp. 235-259 Published by: Duke University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1773441 Accessed: 27/09/2010 14:24
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Athens,Jerusalem,Mecca:
Leo Strauss's "Muslim" Understanding

of GreekPhilosophy
Remi Brague Paris1 Philosophy,

Abstract The contrast "Athensvs. Jerusalem" played a major part in the late work of Leo Strauss (1899-1973). His scholarly career, from the outset, can be described as a motion from Jerusalem (Spinoza, Maimonides) to Athens (Plato, Xenophon). Nevertheless, a third city, Mecca, and what it stands for, unspokenly synthesizes the first two. For instance, Strauss'sinterpretation of Plato is grounded on Farabi's view of philosophical style. His rediscoveryof esotericism-that is, of the possibility of a silent oral teaching-depends on an Islamic conception of Revelation, which opposes the Christian one: Athens and Jerusalem meet in Mecca, but they are at loggerheads in Rome. The Athens and Jerusalem Theme The second-century church father Tertullian may have been the first to declare, What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?, but it was not until the Russian philosopher Leo Shestov used the two city names as the title of a book (1951, posthumous) that they became a kind of catchword for the opposiSomewordson the labyrinthine in historyof the presenttext:A firstversionwas prepared

English and sent to a symposium that, for reasons of health, I could not attend. Its proceedings were due to be published but finally were not. My article was later translated into French (Brague 1989a). The present version takes advantage of remarksby the late David R. Lachterman (Lachterman 1991:238-45). PoeticsToday 19:2 (Summer 1998) Copyright ? 1998 by the Porter Institute for Poetics and Semiotics.

the earliest occurrence I know of is a letter to Karl Lowith. as well as for his rediscovery of the classical philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. The same complex of ideas received a full treatment in a series of lectures given in Chicago in 1952and partially published two years later. where he taught first in New York. and finally settled in the United States. It only announces a lecture by the same title. 2. the hen anagkaion different. Finally. Among the people who took up Shestov's yoked pair. Leo Strauss (1899-1973) began his career in Germany as a student of Jewish and Muslim philosophy. The theme was first made public in 1952:"The issue of traditionalJudaism versus philosophy is identical with the issue Jerusalem versus Athens" (Strauss 1952: 20). Strauss began a lecture on Thucydides with a statement on Western tradition that may constitute the first full-fledged orchestration of the theme: 1."and so on. From the vantage[the only necessary thing] is totally point of the Bible. in a Hebrew translation (Strauss 1979). from the late 1940s. some years before 1964. Strauss 1959: 9-1o.236 PoeticsToday19:2 tion between Hellenism and Hebraism. before he could have read Shestov's book. by non denegating the tertium datur. But there the names of Athens and Jerusalem are missing. he fled to France. Britain. whose conflict is supposed to be the backbone of European history. dated from August 15. with a quotation without references to Isaiah 1: 26.Every synthesis is in fact a choice either for Jerusalem or for Athens" (Voegelin et al. 1ll). life of science. In 1951. to which he devoted one of his most well-known books. on the occasion of a paper given in Jerusalem (!). then in Chicago. probably alluded to in Strauss 1935: 28. He is famous for his attempt at reviving the idea of Natural Right. hence. 1946 (Strauss 1983a: 108.2There the faithful city stands for prophecy. the relationship between both cities that stand for two "cultures. Strauss wrote: "Classical authors bore witness to the fact that truly human life."two "worldviews. very stealthy appearance in 1954. In the 1930s. On the content of this contrast. which he contended to be still relevant for our time and age. But the thing is present from the outset in his writings. and Athens for political philosophy. 1993: 30). One reaches no plausible aim by covering up this contrast. if we take the phrase in its broadest meaning-that is. to be held in November 1946. See the quotation by Goethe in Strauss 1952: 5. Leo Strauss must probably be given pride of place.' As for the formula. if we read them as they wanted to be read. This theme is voiced at a relatively late date in Strauss's progress. is the life that is devoted to knowledge and looking for it. Strauss gives us brief hints only. They make their first. . Strauss put the theme of "Athensand Jerusalem" at the very core of his later thought.

It has already puzzled several scholars. On Strauss's hermeneutics. or claimed to have made. Machiavelli's blasphemies) under 3. is a forgotten way of reading. i. he rediscovered an art of writing.6 Unfortunately for our present purpose.: xxxi-xxxii.. he wrote in the same way as the authors he studied are supposed to have done.: 165. too: Since "people write as they read" (Strauss 1952: 144). crudely.e. and we speak rightly. not to say a recantation: Speaking of the Western tradition as Strauss did is "impossible . 22."Muslim" of Understanding GreekPhilosophy Brague* LeoStrauss's 237 [Western] tradition has two roots. the one thing needful is free inquiry. and necessarily so. according to philosophy. It consists of two heterogeneous elements. According to the Bible. Strauss 1989: 72-73. nay necessary. . see ibid. 198.5 so a frank avowal of perplexity might be the least dishonorable evasion. which the present essay presupposes and completes. the best overview I know of is Marshall 1985 (which has exceptionally rich footnotes). (Strauss 1989: 72-73) Unfortunately. But the one thing needful proclaimed by the Bible is the very opposite of the one thing needful proclaimed by Greek philosophy. On Strauss's thought in general. Hence such sentences as: "Let us then keep them (sc. 6. only "as long as we speak politically. of two elements which are ultimately incompatible with each other-the Hebrew element and the Greek element. we are at a loss how to understand a text that does not claim to be more than "preliminary reflections" and whose content is highly cryptic. 5. Between Athens and Jerusalem: To and Fro The main discovery that Strauss made. See Momigliano 1987: 197 n. and Rosen 1987: 107-38. On the date. we read an important qualification. though. between faith and philosophy. . But all these attempts have failed. on the occasion of the publication of the proceedings of a conference given in the same year under this very title (Strauss 1983b). we cannot ascertain to what extent Strauss meant his own statements seriously." see ibid.. needful for man. 4." and acceptable. A useful introduction appears in Sales i Coderch and Montserrat i Molas 1991."3 By this token. and he concealed what he believed to have found. see Brague 1991.. Both philosophy and the Bible assert that there is ultimately one thing. but only of their tension: this is the secret of the vitality of the West. the one thing needful is obedient love.. of the antagonism between Jerusalem and Athens. The theme finally becomes central in 1967. The Western tradition does not allow of a synthesis of its two elements. and one thing only. We speak. some lines afterwards. in the last analysis. On the "classical struggle in the Middle Ages.4 Again. This text may be the same as the one referred to in Strauss 1983a.The whole history of the West can be viewed as an ever repeated attempt to achieve a compromise or a synthesis between the two antagonistic principles..

Therefore. See. Aristotle. way of concealing an original and/or subversive standpoint under the mask of a traditional formula? I will here choose a safer way of inquiry. as to the relation of the theology of the Morehto the Platonic doctrine of the One. and the relation of the 7. Hermann Cohen. and most elaborate. It can be described as a journey from Jerusalem to Athens: Whereas the first publications dealt with Jewish thinkers like Maimonides-not to mention Mendelssohn.7Yet Strauss's interest in the ancients is relatively late.When. in 1946. for instance. are commentaries on Greek philosophers and writers like Plato. for the most part. or Aristophanes. Thucydides. was deliberately buried under either painstaking and fastidious analyses of texts. classical Greek thinkers were studied as sources. underwent an evolution as to his style. the last ones. Our task is made all the more difficult by the facts that Strauss. Xenophon. Plato is to be studied as Maimonides' source or inspirer: "One cannot avoid to ask the questions. if any. Initially. For we cannot tell to which layer of thought this theme actually belonged: Is it Strauss'slast position on some fundamental questions. One can never tell whether one is probing the depths of his thought or merely blundering about and sliding on its glittering surface. and that the trend of this evolution. he was already in his late forties (Strauss 1946). as well as other theses the refutation of which always runs the risk of becoming an exercise in shadow-boxing. but Strauss's main purpose was to explore medieval thought. . on the other hand. or merely the ultimate. which consists in looking at Strauss'scareer. for example. as well as of the predicament we face when we try to interpret him. as seen from the outside. The "Athens and Jerusalem" theme furnishes us with a good example of both dimensions of Strauss's thought.238 PoeticsToday19:2 the veil under which he has hidden them" (Strauss 1959: 41). Burnyeat 1985 and the ensuing discussion. since his first published text on a Greek author is the 1939 essay on Xenophon (Strauss 1939b). crucial to the understanding of Maimonides. and so on-or Jewish in origin like Spinoza. or moral and/or political preaching. interpreting Strauss is an almost desperate task. Strauss excelled in the art of window-dressing and paying lip service to conservative and "square"opinions. he wrote a scathing critique of a book on Plato's political philosophy. the research program Strauss drafted at the end of his 1936 French essay on Maimonides' and Farabi'spolitical science. on the one hand. His pleading for Natural Right might belong to that kind of rhetoric. See. led him to an avowedly esoteric style in which his real thought. These interpretations are the most famous and the most controversial.

?1 The influence of Avicenna and Razi notwithstanding. who follows a suggestion by Moritz Steinschneider (Steinschneider 1869: 176-78. the most important source of Strauss's hermeneutics is probably Farabi. in Nietzsche 1974 [1911]:346-47. This argument supposes that this critique is to be taken seriouslywhich is a more or less safe bet. while disagreeing with the cure. Nietzsche. the discussion about the creation of the world) to the doctrine of the Timaeus" (Strauss 1936c: 35). Nevertheless. A Stop-Off in Mecca:Farabi Nevertheless. . Second. Islamic-in origin. although he seldom acknowledged it explicitly. It is therefore apposite that we should pause in order to examine briefly Strauss'srelationship to him. quoted in Strauss 1936a: 1oo n.8 An aphorism that Strauss. to the best of my knowledge. Strauss. V. this leaves open the possibility that Strauss. 8. In the first one. the thesis I should like to defend in this essay is that the pattern of reading Strauss applied to the Greeks is neither ancient nor modern. it was pointed out to me that I overlooked Strauss's later critique of Nietzsche. as well as Thucydides' Peloponnesian as sources for the British philosoWar. let alone to expose him as having copied Nietzsche. and never ceased to do that. See Brague 1996. pher's thought (Strauss 1936b). never uses9 can be read as a program for Strauss. Strauss wrote three articles on Farabi.Brague * Leo Strauss's "Muslim"Understanding of Greek Philosophy 239 cosmology of the Moreh(that is. Moreover. i). Especially important is the view of Plato that is to be found in the writings of this tenthcentury thinker (872-950). Or we can point to the parallel thrust of his book on Hobbes: unveil(his ing the second book of Aristotle's Rhetorics "treatise on the passions"). Let me add some words on Nietzsche's influence on Strauss. 5). in my opinion. Strauss read the Greeks from a point of view that is neither Greek (Athenian) nor Jewish (Jerusalemite). this backward movement from medieval or modern thinkers to their ancient forerunners or inspirers is not the only one. agreed with the general diagnosis proposed by Nietzsche-which is my hunch. TheDawn of Day. Thus. but Muslim-"Meccan. Strauss himself points to the parallel drawn by Nietzsche between Plato and Muhammad in The Will to Power(Strauss 1935: 62 n. ? 496. 1o. We can spot another trend: reading the ancients with medieval eyes. Strauss. the first two of which were not republished in book form. or at least for his early work on the medievals. Let me first state that my intention never was to blame Strauss for that. In other words. This outlook seems to stem from a thinker who deeply influenced the young Strauss. but only a bet. did exactly that. See Brague 1991:104-5. nor to debunk him as a crypto-Nietzschean (if the latter adjective had to be derogatory). 9. but medieval-to be precise." if I may coin the phrase.

Let us quote some salient points: According to Strauss'sand Farabi'scommon outlook." Strauss invites the reader to reconsider the history of medieval philosophy as a whole by giving Farabi the place that becomes him: the place of primacy (ibid. 152. The second essay (Strauss 1945) deals with the very work that the first one tried to elicit from its Hebrew adaptation. 1952: 13-14). . Farabi'sviews are closely akin to that of Cicero" (Strauss 1945: 380 n. not to say criticized by the latter (Strauss 1945: 362 [politics]. The important point is not our assessing Strauss'simportance or shortcomings in his interpretation of Farabi.See Farabi 1969b: ? 144. The original text had just been published in a critical edition by F. 391.. 371-72 [soul]. 1936b: xv). we have good reasons for surmising that his underset standing of the Republic. Strauss 1959: 134. Some pages of this article became part of the introductory essay to Strauss's main "hermeneutical" text (Strauss 1945: 371-72. Aspects that transcend the political realm are systematically given short shrift: the doctrine of "ideas. as a correction of the Republic. which Strauss tentatively ascribed to another work by Farabi (see Strauss 1936a: 98. 1936c: 30 n. could be identified as translations from the hitherto lost Bookof Letters."the soul and its immortality. stems from a parain Farabi'sPhilosophy Plato. The views of Farabi's Socrates are distinguished from Plato's own views. For instance.240 Poetics Today 19:2 ascribes long fragments of Falqera'sReshit Hokmah a lost work by Farabi: to The third part of the Jewish author's compendium on philosophical sciences excerpts Farabi's writing on Plato and Aristotle (ibid. 9-13.We read in this work: of graph the Whenhe had done this. 153).: 100-104). he must have understood him better than Plato himself had done. the gods and religious aspects in general. forth in The CityandMan. 3). ment to the Republic. Now. Other fragments of Falqera's work. 1959: 66-68. 364 [ideas]. The question must arise as to whether Farabi was faithful to Plato. Walzer in 1943. 1946: 329. Strauss supposes he was not: "He (Farabi) conceives of the Laws not. defended by Kant and Schleiermacher-and a rule that Strauss never tired of exposing as inadequate (Strauss 1991:25. 1969: 151-52. as but as a supplePlato himself had done.: 105-6).What I want to emphasize is that Strauss made use of Farabi as an interpretive key to unlock Plato's dialogues. The third and last article is devoted to the analysis of a newly published summary of the Laws (Strauss 1959 [1957]). A difficulty must then arise: If Farabi corrected Plato. Rosenthal and R.. Plato is first and foremost a political thinker.he afterwards investigated mannerand the method in meansof whichthe citizensof citiesandnationsoughtto be instructed this by 11. 55). Strauss's Plato is basically the same as Farabi's.. this is a modern hermeneutical rule. 148.

X. who is named here. a dialogue whose Platonic authenticity is dubious (Slings 1981). (Farabi 1943: X. and a power of love. Be that as it may. is borrowed from Farabi (Strauss 1945: 383. From the point of view of the historian. The very way Strauss puts Thrasymachus at the center of his interpretation. as elsewhere (Plato. Here he delineated once again Socrates' method for realizing his aim of making his own people understand through scientific investigation the ignorance they were in. ? 36.The Clitophon may have been interpreted on the basis of the Hellenistic ideal. In this text. Farabi is all the more interesting for us because we are dealing with Athens and Jerusalem-in this context. Socrates possessed only the ability to conduct a scientific investigation of justice and the virtues. whether the method ought to be the one used by Socrates or the one used by Thrasymachus. or 1969. ? 30. through Aristotle's PosteriorAnalytics) 12. Another reference to Thrasymachus is in Farabi 1968: lno. Farabi's works happen to embody the passage from the former to the latter. but did not possess the ability to form the character of the youth and the multitude. Strauss 1964: 116. He explained Thrasymachus' method and made it known that Thrasymachus was more able than Socrates to form the character of the youth and instruct the multitude. RepublicI. By this token. This fact has already been highlighted (Benardete 1978: 9. bringing into relief the importance of the friendship that finally arises between him and Socrates. 1959: 153). 66-67). as a friend of Thrasymachus. launches a violent attack on Socrates. Berrichon-Sedeyn 1987: xxix. 134).12 The whole background of the passage seems to be an exegesis of the Clitophon. taunting him with one-sidedness in a way that reminds one of Hegel's critique of subjective morality on behalf of objective Sittlichkeit. with the relationship between Greek philosophy and revealed. 21-22. On the other hand. monotheistic religion. . the prince. and the philosopher. the general thrust of Strauss's reading of the Republic reminds one of Farabi's utterances. the combination of "Socratic" bold philosophizing and "Thrasymachean" cautious speech characterizes Strauss's own art of writing. of the unity of the philosopher and the orator (Walzer in Farabi 1985: xiii). as expressed in Cicero. Clitophon. 34oa). he may be the most perfect link between the two worlds. We possess a fragment by him which was handed down to us by a Muslim biographer and doxographer and in which Farabi explains how he received his training in Aristotelian philosophy (and above all in higher logic and epistemology. and the legislator ought to be able to use both methods: the Socratic method with the elect. 12324."Muslim" of Brague* LeoStrauss's Understanding GreekPhilosophy 241 science and their character formed by those ways of life. and Thrasymachus' method with the youth and the multitude.

It gives a large harvest of facts in a field that still requires detailed historical study-and has received little (see Holzhey and Zimmerli 1977).: 604-5. Discussion in S. Farabi "just cribbed the whole thing" from some secondrate treatise of late Hellenistic origin. barring some details. but Farabi himself may have taken up ideas from the Hellenistic (Stoic or middle Platonic) interpretation of Plato. has an authentic ring. this claim.d. and hence of an esoteric interpretation of texts. Nevertheless. The classical study on the historical background is Meyerhof 1930. We can spot traces of this basic attitude in the ancient world prior to the emergence of monotheistic world religions. supported by Richard Walzer. a view criticized by Strauss (Strauss 1945: 359.'3 Now. Ibn Abi Usaybi'a n. according to Walzer. his account. or should we rather look at it as arising from Farabi's halfcritically taking over some Hellenistic and/or middle Platonic epitomizer or commentator? This last approach was. Farabi'stext is not devoid of any self-praise:He wants to appear as the last heir of antique wisdom. is not essentially linked to the idea of religious orthodoxy. The danger is older than they are-as the case of Socrates illustrates. To be sure. which presumes the presence of a historical continuity between later Greek (pagan) thought and Islam.viewed against the background 13. . In any case. EsotericStyle In any event. Stroumsa 1991. One often gets the impression that. Esotericism as a means of communicating dangerous truths without endangering one's own security or civil peace is as old as philosophy. It is a matter of common knowledge that the most important thing in Strauss's hermeneutics is his rediscovery of bears sufficient and esoteric writing. raises still other questions: Can we speak of Farabi's interpretation of the Greeks as his own achievement. The possibility of an esoteric meaning. For the danger to be coped with is itself as old as philosophy.242 PoeticsToday19:2 from an uninterrupted chain of direct master-disciple transmission that reaches back to the last scions of Greek philosophical schools. putting on medieval spectacles in order better to look at ancient texts is made possible by the (alleged?) rediscovery of a common feature supposed to run through the whole history of philosophy up to the Enlightenment: esoteric style. Strauss's winding way from the Greeks and back to them is not easy to assess from the vantage point of the historian of ideas: Strauss read Plato from Farabi'spoint of view. His book Persecution theArt of Writing witness to this. 377). to put it bluntly. broadly speaking.

Strauss'scentral assumption is the existence of esoteric writing.'5The reason alleged there-Plato wanted to hide that he had stolen ideas from Democritus!--may be apocryphal and may stem from the increasing trend of late antiquity toward personalizing the history of philosophy. See. For these can be explained. before the very idea of orthodoxy had even emerged.crypto-Jewish literature among Marranos. too. completed. with the exception of the Chaldean Oracles Plato's Timaeus and (Marinos 1814:chap. according to his biographer. 38). written texts that are meant. which takes place in the inner circle of disciples. . for instance. Normally. more or less gifted and acute. See Diogenes Laertius on Protagoras (IX. even in classical antiquity. for example. see. For examples in Rome. 52).g. On the other hand. etc. for instance. Since Strauss avowedly took his departure from their study and broadened his ken to other thinkers.. 15. Aristoxenos. end. an easy objection is that he saw esotericism not only where it is actually to be found but where it never was. in living communication. 131Wehrli = Diogenes Laertius IX. the open-minded review in Belaval 1953 and Strauss's rejoinder in Strauss 1959: 228-32. Leaman 1980. thought that every philosophical book should be hidden from the youth. and (b) levels of meaning. whereas esotericism belongs to oral teaching. Neither is this originality to be looked for in his asserting that some texts are esoteric. written texts are exoteric. more or less superficial. and the like orally by the master who wrote them.Brague * Leo Strauss's "Muslim"Understanding of Greek Philosophy 243 of the various lawsuits for impiety leveled at Anaxagoras and others. in themselves and out of 14. 16. Other explanation in Bollack 1967. "enlightened"writers concealing their "Spinozism"). see Momigliano 1980. For an analogous but less fair attack on Strauss's method applied to medievalfaldsifa.'6 One point deserves to be heavily stressed: Strauss'shermeneutical originality does not lie in the claim that there is a difference between (a) levels of readers. some later philosophers toyed with this idea: Proclus. Esoteric writing is traditionally admitted or simply discussed in connection with phenomena belonging either to the medieval world (the socalled Averroists.) or to the modern period (e. corrected. 40. that is. may have had this function (Gaiser 1959).'4 More disquieting is the fact that philosophers themselves were reported not to have had misgivings against such a practice. All those facts are relatively well-known. See Spinoza. frgt. Some dialogues by Plato. This is at least the case if we are to trust Aristoxenos's report on Plato's proposal that Democritus's books be burned. Burning books was a very old way of eliminating heterodoxy. Written works can very well be meant to lure the reader through their very aporetic character so as to drive him or her toward a living encounter with their author. Letter56. Nevertheless.

"to convey his oral teaching. 18.'8 17. to a hearer B still to be born. without any definite let alone orthodoxy.'7that is. It enables a philosopher A to "speak. silent oral teaching. Strauss tacitly discards or downplays the admission that external circumstances such as the adventure in Sicily. not the discussions at the Academy. Strauss agrees with Harold Cherniss's atdoctrine. the description of the "Jerusalemite" understanding of contradictions in a sacred . See the cartoon in Burnyeat 1985: 32-small people paying obeisance to dusty old folios. Since such a text is planned to be accessible to men of future generations. at least if this implies a definite doctrine. The paradox lies in the blending of orality and writing. if I may coin a bold formula. Plato's alleged metaphysics of numbers. Aristotle's lost dialogues). to convey their full meaning to the acute reader while keeping it out of the reach of run-of-the-mill people. in so far as their flawless composition unswervingly mirrors divine perfection. Foremost among these external circumstances is the very fact that the texts were transmitted to us or lost (e. or even death. Plato must be the author of books comparable to sacred books. the choice being made by later transmitterswith regard to criteria that are not necessarily to be supposed identical with the author's own tastes. tack on the former (Strauss 1946: 349-50). for example. Written esoteric communication makes possible something like. The singularity of the kind of esotericism Strauss supposes is its capability of establishing communication between philosophers in spite of their being kept apart by centuries. inner Academic debates. as a critique commonly leveled against Strauss has it. through a text written according to definite rules. This may be the reason why Strauss could not abide the idea of an oral teaching of Plato. as absolutely true and free of contradictions. such as it is reconstructed by the Tubingen school (Kramer 1982). The accent does not lie so much on "sacred"as on "books":Their being sacred and their being books are two aspects of a single fact. must have written not only esoteric texts in general also but self-sufficient esoteric texts.. that prevented Plato from giving the Laws the last touch-up might have played their part in Plato's literary activity (Strauss 1991: 25). when death will have definitely precluded the possibility of any "living" communication. They must be sacred as books. Cf. The comparison with sacred books does not mean that these books should be read as sacred. They must at least have been written with a view to a way of reading analogous to the way sacred books are read.g. understood as a living inquiry in and communication (synusia) philosophical leisure. for instance.244 Poetics Today 19:2 themselves. it is necessary that it should be completely selfsufficient. Plato.

Maimonides alludes to this fact: He quotes Alexander of Aphrodisias's On thePrinciples the Wholeon the three main of causes of error (Badawi 1978 [19671: 276). who wrote: "Know. 2:377). well as the anonymous authors of as the Encyclopedia thePureBrethren. on the other hand. Strauss 1981:19-20. Therefore. we feel compelled to qualify the statement according to which "it is essential to the success of this style that the fact that an author is employing it should be communicated indirectly"(Mahdi 1957: 118). Maimonides is among them. at least in the introduction to the GuideforthePerplexed. It must be said somewhere: "This very work you are actually reading is an esoteric work. we read words that are to be translated otherwise." Otherwise. that in this of epistle (risala)we have made clear what final end is sought. Hints are not enough."Muslim" of Brague* LeoStrauss's Understanding GreekPhilosophy 245 The link between external circumstances and inner meaning is provided by the author's statement about his work and the way he wanted it to be read. In Dieterici's edition. the authors about whom the use of esoteric style cannot be denied just let the cat out of the bag without further ado about their making use of such a style. readers may mistake their own fancies for the elicitation of the secret meaning the author intended to veil/unveil in his or her work. expressions and indications in order that we should not be (forced to abandon our present way of life)" (Ihwan as-Safa' 1983. Translation in Pines 1980: 185-86. It should be noted. however. we cover up truths by words.Now. A general problem arises as to whether the author of an esoteric piece of writing has to confess that he is writing in an esoteric way: "The case of the authors who explicitly say that they intentionally contradict themselves in order to indicate a secret teaching to an elite among the readers.19 In view of such examples. He then adds that there now book in Strauss 1979: 116with. There are some examples of such writers. for (according to) a habit we follow. See Brague 1993b: 99. is entirely different from that of authors who neither say nor indicate anything of that kind" (Strauss 1959: 224). Do not think ill of us and do not regard this epistle as an amusement of adolescents and as an idle tale of the Brethren. to what extent are we allowed to interpret works in which no such open statements occur as fraught with a secret meaning? Esotericismand the ThreeMedievalReligions Even if we may admit the existence of esoteric texts outside of religious traditions. brother. . where the Bible and Plato's dialogues are played off against one another. 19. the use of esoteric style is more convenient when a religious orthodoxy has seized power. that the text of this crucial passage is not entirely sound.

his general view of the context of esotericism. thus have to ask. was aware of the non-Jewish origin of esotericism as he understood it. 4. He means thereby.20This crucial difference between medieval and Greek thought should preclude any too harsh reasoning upward from the former to the latter. the interpretation devices that are brought to bear. of the meaning of "Jewish. The idea of a secret doctrine may have been extant in some stages of Christian intellectual history. and the question of the worth of this statement. in my opinion. Stroumsa 1986). For instance. Is the Straussian idea of esotericism a Jewish one? Now. Islamic sources of Maimonides (Strauss 1935: 115n. The only question we have to face is the Jewish nature We of Strauss's enterprise. the existence of religions founded on texts whose authority should not be challenged. Strauss repeatedly points toward a more general medieval background.246 Poetics Today 19:2 exists a fourth cause of difficulty in the attainment of truth that did not exist in ancient times-habit and education. 44. nor any specificity whatsoever. Quoted or alluded to in Strauss 1959: 164-65. have nothing specifically Jewish or "Greek" about them. 29-45. 31. we may surmise. But what really matters is. A current image of Strauss is that of a rabbi turned mad. This image. he is eager to underline that a certain doctrine in Maimonides cannot be traced back to the Talmud but comes from a Muslim source. The question at stake is not whether the man Strausswas Jewish or not: He himself stated that he was (Strauss 1968: 260). the basic assumptions of which were shared by Jews and Muslims-although not by Christians."and so on must be left aside. . and 1963: xx. He often endeavored to enhance the non-Jewish character of the phenomena he stumbled on. Strauss. but it was expelled at a relatively early date (G. of a perverse reading of philosophical texts as if they were the Talmud. some dimensions of esotericism can be assessed 20. Strauss's discovery arose from the study of a Muslim (Farabi) and of an outcast (Spinoza). 1939a:455). in my opinion. 16. The first one to come to the dock must be Judaism. he explains. He always looks for non-Jewish. the question of the relationship between "Athens" and "Jerusalem"could not be asked in a meaningful way before the latter became powerful enough to match the former. is radically mistaken. Maimonides 1929: I. to the utmost particular way of eliciting meaning from obscure texts (Strauss 1924: 295). Maimonides 1963: 66-67. At any rate. See Brague forthcoming. As a matter of fact. Strauss may allude somewhere to the Jewish way of dealing with words. We thus have to ask what kind of relationship obtains between the Straussian enterprise and the three main versions of monotheism. insofar as they are technical.

See Keddie 1963. was given in S. and in some extreme cases. after S. existential . The fact of esotericism in Muslim thought is manifest.. It corresponds to inner features of the Islamic conception of Revelation. See Jadaane 1973: 26-32. But in fact. ? 52. see Gardet 1951). some ideas. afactum brutum.are commonly recognized as meant for an elite only. in recent times. practical. to the way it conceives of the basic relationship of man to the Absolute. I say:factumbrutum-for there is no argument whatsoever. Strauss had taken this procedure as a model of esoteric communication (Strauss 1952: 125 n. The central witnesses in medieval times are. As for the fact of esotericism in Islamic philosophers. we are at no pains for how to find examples. The same method is applied to the study of modern thinkers of the Arabic renascence in Keddie 1972. 22.23 But even supposed that assumption of esotericism can be true by and large. Revelation in Islam is a mere fact. that is. 95). theoretical. although some results of previous and. as Kierkegaard shows all too well) by 21. see Kohlberg 1975. Moreover. see Meyer 1980: 263. had supposed that the Brahmins quoted by Islamic heretics were sheer puppets on which they could foist their own critique of Revelation (Kraus 1994: 167). originally created by God. and finds its stronghold in. following suggestions by Saadia Gaon and al-Biruni. For instance. First.2'A permission. Pines."Muslim" of Understanding GreekPhilosophy Brague* LeoStrauss's 247 more easily in the Islamic world. Stroumsa 1985. for historical reasons. On the idea of a progressive.22Esotericism could link up philosophy with a more or less political mysticism. Straussian hermeneutics takes its bearings from.. 23. Hence. for Strauss. Ibn Tufayl's preface to his Hayy ibn raqzan (1936: 1-16) and the suspicion leveled by Averroes against al-Ghazali (1987 [1930]: I. paradigmatic research on Islamic esotericism have undergone criticism. . or of the 'personal' of God. The fatal blow against Kraus's thesis. not even the argument of paradox (a paradox as such. . the historical exploration of this field. we should not content ourselves with mere fact. after all. including treatises by Avicenna (1969. as is well-known. 30). many medieval works on which Strauss never published. processual coming to light of truth. On the Shi'ite conception of taqiyya. canbecalledfor reason. This means that esotericism should not be considered as stemming from merely exterior causes that the historian could assess without further ado. the Islamic writer probably relied upon sound historical evidence on Indian-Muslim encounter. This is the way Strauss conceives religious Revelation: "There is only one objection to PlatoAristotle: and that is the factum brutum revelation. a duty of dissimulation (taqiyya) present in is and especially in the Ismaeli circles with which thefaldsifa shared Shi'ism. Paul Kraus. it is commonly admitted.

See the implications of the text by Machiavelli (Discorsi. its content is a text. Strauss'sview. it does not admit an incarnation. a written text. 110o-1 n.which characterizes the genuine philosopher. repetition of or on our having to pick up the rarest statement contradictory teachings. unlike Islam. The latter is. Christianity possesses sacred books. The phenomenon of the Sacred Book24is far more peculiar to Islam than to Christianity. the word of God. is not so much a book as a person. properly speaking. one of which it shares with Judaism. too.To begin with. a point Ravitzky himself underlines-for on example. 111) has shown that Strauss's reading of Maimonides was anticipated by some medieval commentators to the Guide. on Solomon (considered as the author of Qohelet). But what is revealed. and only derivatively the written records of his teachings and life in the New Testament. The Word of God is first and foremost Jesus Christ. Basic Conceptsof Esotericism We can lend some probability to our hypothesis about the Muslim origin of Strauss's conception of esotericism by examining the basic concepts it involves. to belief" (Strauss 1983a: 108). Ravitzky mentions. . Historicity In a very interesting article. a book. this is especially the case with Samuel ben Judah ibn Tibbon. In Islam.II. as expressing the author's view. Second. Judaism stands midway: Unlike Christianity and like Islam. the very translator of the Guide:Some quotations can't help but remind us with an outstanding clarity of Strauss'shermeneutics. 5) quoted in Strauss 1983b: 226. dictated to the Prophet (through the angel Gabriel). discussion. Aviezer Ravitzky (1981:108-9. its sacred writings are not immediately present but mediated through the very process of their reception. and interpretation. their views about the content of the hidden doctrine is that the hidden teaching of the Bible is identical to Aristotelian physics and metaphysics. what is revealed by God is the Sacred Book itself. 95. on the other hand. however. and what is revealed is a law. "Ibn Tibbon's intrigu24. As for the idea of history. On the other hand. In particular. literally speaking. Ravitzky underlines elsewhere that there are momentous differences between Strauss and the medieval commentators.248 PoeticsToday19:2 from the agnoiatheou. is that what Maimonides endeavors to conceal from the common reader is that the two cannot be reconciled (Ravitzky 1990: 178-82).

consequently. too."27 25.26The same holds true for the idea of a "philosophy of the elite. This is more in keeping with Muslim than with Jewish views. no secularization of this idea is "progress":"It is characteristic that the believers in progress are found largely among the sectarians and those not in good standing with orthodoxy" (von Grunebaum 1961:71)-for example. 26. Revelation (in philosophical terms: man's relationship to the Absolute) does not take place through history--although it does take place in history. esoteric writing is "Socratic"(Strauss 1939b: 535.25 is the provisional character of esotericism or its definitive necessity. According to the former. The title "Philosophy of the Elite" occurs in the so-called . on the other hand. TheIdeaof Elite Strauss'sesotericist hermeneutics supposes that philosophical writings are genuinely addressed to elite readers to whom their real purpose is disclosed. he is a follower of Maimonides. apparently denies progress in quite a radical way. Since Socrates always addressed a single man. or science. whereas common people are paid lip service and consolidated in their unfounded but socially useful opinions by edifying speeches. because of man's historical nature. may vary according to them. for instance in Galen.puls. The elite may consist of one individual. See Porphyry 1856: Prologue. 27. 656 Kuehn). therefore no idea of a salvation history is available (Falaturi1977). III. quoted in Walzer 1949: 39.. On this point.He quotes fascinating statements by Ibn Tibbon according to which esotericism is a necessity under certain circumstances only and. This idea has clear antecedents in later Greek philosophy. no Enlightenment whatsoever will ever be able to bridge the gap between the elite and the vulgar: "They believed that the gulf separating 'the wise' and 'the vulgar' was a basic fact of human nature which could not be influenced by any progress of popular education: philosophy. The general trend The issue at stake is toward progress: Enlightenment increases steadily. 1983b: 172). See in particular the last pages of Moses ibn Tibbon 1837: 172-75 and Moses of Narbonne 1852: 34a (both quoted by Ravitzky 1981:115). His view of history is a static one.and consequently. was essentially a privilege of 'the few'" (Strauss 1952: 34). See De dif. Maimonides' early commentators viewed esoteric communication as a device whose usefulness varies according to the more or less widespread enlightenment of their contemporaries. A greater or lesser degree of esotericism can be apposite in certain times. Strauss'soutlook. Therefore. 3 (VIII. Razi (1939: 301). esotericism cannot be provisory."Muslim" of Understanding GreekPhilosophy Brague* LeoStrauss's 249 ing notion of the dynamic nature of the spiritual history of Israel and the gradual purification of the religious concept of the community throughout the ages" (1981:111).

the gap that separates it cannot be bridged. .It is incumbentto us therefore (a) live in harmonywith the public. but its roots were in the theological idea of Israel's isolation vis-a-vis the nations of the world. a further step is taken when the existence of an elite is thematized. English in "Theology of Aristotle" of 1959: 2: 381. and which the rabbis used to represent" (Wevers 1975: 193. and had no hope of bringing the masses up to elite status. which means that a group separates itself inside of an over-archingbond. something like the "rest"of the Prophets. Therefore. if an elite is conceived of as radically severed from the rest of mankind. The elite is not an end in itself. 19. when they sharewith IV. Islamic conceptions of the elite may vary (Beg 1978). ? 113. in Badawi 1977 [1955]: 61. But "the philosophers restricted the elite most. Theology Aristotle. whereas a representative. elite is but provisionally separated from mankind. Its role is a vicarious one. An extreme example of the philosophic attitude is to be found in Farabi's identification of the elite.(b) Associatethem in the good whose care is entrustedto us (just as it is incumbenton them to associateus to in the good thingswhosecare is entrusted them)by showingthem the truth for concerningthe opinionsthey hold in theirreligions. The isolation of rabbinical Judaism was not primarily socially motivated. 133). my translation). The idea of representation is the central one: There is no knowledge reserved to a select elite. In another work. hence responsible. On the other hand. with the philosopher who is a philosopher in the absolute meaning of the term (1969b: III. The Sages considered themselves as representatives of Israel. since the elite itself is meant to function as a substitute for the vulgar. As a rule. Jewish esotericism is rooted in the Talmud. Yet. the same author appears to have a more balanced stance toward the rest of the city: to are We [philosophers] politicalin nature. this happens in the elite itself and through its reflection on its own status. as the other groups [shi'a.love them and preferdoing what is usefulto of them and redoundsto the improvement theircondition(just as it is incumbent on them to do the same in our regard). for which it does not stand and toward which it bears no responsibility.250 PoeticsToday19:2 The constitution of an elite is quite a common feature of all religious or scientific systems. and see 203. This leads to the coining of a special word. absolutely speaking. which stands for mankind: "Rabbinical Judaism understood itself as a vicarious elite. Its separation must then be definitive. in the inner isolation of Israel that was rendered necessary by that.p. sufis] might" (Keddie 1963: 59). it is not self-centered but responsible for the rest of the community to which it belongs. See Brague 1997. ? 61. Such a word is not extant before medieval Judaism.

but only toward potential philosophers. The question is to which of the two models of the "elite" we have just briefly outlined this idea belongs.same root as khassa)are oriented toward the well-being of the community. 30. The nonphilosophical mob must be kept at bay.29 Bahya. VIII. 139-40. 1948: 143. on the other hand. 28. 1-6 (I omit to signal two textual emendations by Mahdi). translated is now published. Saadia 1970: III. the underlying model in Saadia is probably the "vicarious"one: The benefits resulting from the choice of an individual (khass.and so on. 1 Corinthians 8: 9-13). Saadia 1970: 121. 3. never an end. 29. as a means of protecting the faith of the weak (see. more precisely in Shi'ism (Pines 1980: 167-72). 6. to the extent of their ability. for instance in Farabi 1987: 1:382.English translation cited in Mahd. for example. 1986: 112-13)28 The best thing that the philosopher can do toward the vulgar is to correct their opinions. 241. . for the faith of the weaker ones is a way of avoiding rioting among the rabble. Esotericism could be justified. It is cared for only insofar as its existence and well-being secures the existence of a society in which philosophy is possible. 2). Paquda 1912:III. however. Bahya b. But its ultimate origin should be most probably looked for in the Muslim world. For the philosopher."if any. is well-known. the traditional warning In against standing apart from tradition and community. (Kitabal-Jadal.the idea of an elite. 5. It looks as though Maimonides' idea of an elite is the second. n? 7."or "heart"(safwa/ Ibn Tibbon: of segula) mankind."Muslim" of Understanding GreekPhilosophy Brague? LeoStrauss's 251 us the truth. the idea of an elite does occur. the general consideration according to which every privilege involves an enforced responsibility.it will be possiblefor them. 116. of preserving social order. contemplation. Basically. For even "respect. "philosophical" one. ? 2. Gersonides polemicizes against Maimonides' taste for esoteric communication and the devices he makes use of-lack of order. Now. opinions. The ms. for instance. and. V. 2. when it is handled by Jewish authors.1948: 137. 1-2. it does not protect anything but the philosopher's knowledge.laws-in whichwe find they are not right. the idea of an In elite is undoubtedly present but has as balance-weights. and see III. and hence of allowing the philosopher to go on pursuing his own goal. transmitted from Adam to the Patriarchs. In later Jewish thought. on the one hand. To quote only Maimonides' forerunners. which originates in pagan or Islamic cultural surroundings (Heinemann 1926: 70 n. or "substance. III.(c) Move them away in fromthings-arguments. The vulgar are always a means.to associate with philosophers the happinessof philosophy. 156-58. everything remains ambiguous. the philosopher has no responsibility whatsoever toward nonphilosophers. and actually was.30 Jehuda Halevi's Kuzari. But his elitism did not remain unchallenged.

Or again: "Judaism and Islam on the one hand and Christianity on the other. 1:1oolol. as these are.grounds on a theory of emasui nation: the well-known Neoplatonic or Bonaventurian bonum difusivum (Gersonides 1569: 3ab and 2d. this harmony is dispelled when both are seen from the point of view of Christianity (perhaps "Rome" could do). Nietzsche's critique of culture." As against Christianity. Strauss expresses this idea in a text that. is deduced from an ontology that Gersonides. We read at the beginning: What lead to the breakwith ancient thoughtwas neither the Bible nor the and and Koran. if we are to trust Strauss. the Islamic-Jewish world is said to resemble classical Greece (Strauss 1952: 9. because they are not led. We can elicit from these statements a basic idea: A deep harmony obtains between "Athens" and "Jerusalem"when the latter is understood from what we could call a "Meccan" vantage.And actually. in his introduction to the Warsof the Lord. For example. 18-19. 6-30.252 PoeticsToday19:2 obscure phrases. by the derivative idea of natural right. 2. leadingideauponwhichGreeks Jews agreeis precisely law the idea of divine Law as of a uniqueand all-encompassing that is at the same time a religiouslaw. see Strauss 1935: 79-86). which behooves the scholar. total order of human life.a Greek philosophyof divineLaw lies at the groundof Jewishand Muslimphilosophy of Torahor of shari'ah: accordingto Avicenna. ancient idea of Law as of a unified. 1866: 8.but perhapsthe New Testament. The duty of communicating one's results. 1984. on Reformation. doubtlessReformation modand The ern philosophy. 21). "Islamic and Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages are more 'primitive' than modern philosophers. 33-36. a civil law and a moral law. but by the original. in my opinion. and 5. (Strauss 1936c: 2. his 1936 French essay on Farabi'sand Maimonides' political science. Strauss 1946: 338) We can find other statements to the same effect.Plato'sLawsare the standard work on prophecy and shari'ah. is particularly instrumental to our understanding of what is at stake with the "Athens and Jerusalem" theme. In other words: because they are disciples of Plato and not disciples of Christians"(Strauss 1935: 62). and so forth. If Christianity is seen as a shallow . as Christianity a ThirdCity It looks like that for Strauss the real alternative to "Athens" and "Jerusalem" (as Strauss understands the latter's fundamental stance) is Christianity. "strove downwards to the depths of pre-'Christian' Jewish as well as GrecoEuropean mind" (Strauss 1923: 241a).

Brague * Leo Strauss's "Muslim"Understanding of Greek Philosophy 253 phenomenon that underlies and conceals the deeper truth of both Athens and Jerusalem. according to Strauss. in John's Gospel. for example. q. See. and the Socratic revolution. By so doing. which occurs in some Christian writers. as understood by Jews and Muslims. IIae. What is more. 106. the same idea of Law holds true for the "world. as 'world. I should like to take advantage of the meaningful character of the names of some other cities and propose the following schema: [Rome] Athens J\erusalem [Mecca] At the bottom of this more or less explicit structure lies the (very explicitly emphasized) idea of Law. What does exist there is the idea of a "New Covenant" or. "Revelation. we read under his pen phrases like "the whole kingdom of darkness with Thomas Aquinas at its head" (Strauss 1968: 213). esp. This statement is an obvious truth. Still more remarkable is the fact that. q. had the form of Law" (Strauss 1937: 97). Ia . but should systematically neglect. 31. seen as the passage from the cosmos to the human soul. 90-108. We could complement Strauss's explicit contrast of Athens and Jerusalem by our giving names to their possible coming together. Aquinas's treatise on the laws in Summatheologica. as it commonly is. it is little wonder that Strauss should not simply forget (Beneton 1987: 79-80). The phrase "new law" (kainos nomos). on the one hand." It does not seem that Strauss has reflected on the parallel between the passage from the Old Covenant to the New. not even as a "New Law. 244). Strauss draws a parallel between cosmos and Law: "The Torah is. Strauss generalizes it and supposes that the content of any Revelation must be a law (Strauss 1983b: 234. Bernard of Clairvaux 1963 [1145?]:418 (Jesus as a legislator). "new commandment. on the other hand. that is. on the other hand."so the characterization of Christianity-even by its own supporters-as a "New Law" should not be taken for granted. and to their greatest divergence.31 utterly absent from the New is Testament. like the world. from the law to Jesus Christ as the man on the one hand. Silence is for Strauss the best way to indicate that a subject does not deserve interest (Strauss 1958: 30)."Both "Athens"(the cosmos) and "Jerusalem"(revealed Law) are basically laws.' before philosophy" (Strauss 1935: 86). every Christian element in Western history. Christianity does not present itself as a Law.

apudArabes 1978 [1947] Aristoteles 32. Abdurrahman (Kuwait: Wakalat al-matbu'at). and later on extended to the study of classical Greek thought. medieval quarrel among the three religions that claim a share in Abraham's heritage. Badawi. I tried to sketch such a story in Brague 1993a. 1977 [1955] PlotinusapudArabes (Kuwait: Wakalat al-matba'at). 1987 [1930] Tahafot (Beirut: Dar el-Machreq)." Strauss'sinterpretation of the ancients. At any rate. see Brague n. they were hardly devout believers (or even if. For an English summary. more especially of its Jewish version. that his hermeneutics arose from a study of medieval thought. as for Strauss himself. like Razi. we should complement the "querelle des anciens et des modernes" by an older. on the face of things a Jewish one.strange bedfellows. On the other hand. . But the Jewish philosophical writers from whom he took his bearings were precisely those upon which the influence of Islamic thought patterns prevailed. on the one hand. But that is another story. we may conclude. at-Tahafot. whom we may safely call Muslims since they lived in a Muslim surrounding."point of view.Schelling. Bouyges de L'incoherence l'incoherence. On the other hand. his understanding of the Greeks betrays unmistakable "Muslim"features. have in common that both are under the Law" (Schelling 1857:57).254 Poetics Today 19:2 Strauss reminds us of. though they differ in other respects. Lucchetta (Padua: Antenore). References Averroes Textearabeetablipar M. we should acknowledge the more discreet presence of some basic "Islamic" assumptions as to the nature of Revelation and "religion. This holds true." nay "Roman. Avicenna 1969 Epistolasulla vitafutura. according to Strauss. they were outspoken freethinkers).32 Conclusion Be that as it may. One would have then to see to what extent the very antithesis between Athens and Jerusalem owes its survival and its permanent fruitfulness in Western culture to the "Roman" character of the latter. If we want to understand him more deeply.edited by F. one could perhaps look at the antithesis between Athens and Jerusalem from a non-"Meccan.d. because of the obvious influence of the faldsifa. who wrote: "Judaism and Paganism. although. bears witness of the deep influence Islam exercised on the way in which medieval Judaism had to formulate its basic tenets.

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