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: Accessed: 27/09/2010 14:24
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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.

whose conflict is supposed to be the backbone of European history. by non denegating the tertium datur. Strauss gives us brief hints only. very stealthy appearance in 1954. Leo Strauss (1899-1973) began his career in Germany as a student of Jewish and Muslim philosophy. Strauss 1959: 9-1o. This theme is voiced at a relatively late date in Strauss's progress. 1993: 30). Strauss began a lecture on Thucydides with a statement on Western tradition that may constitute the first full-fledged orchestration of the theme: 1. he fled to France. with a quotation without references to Isaiah 1: 26. and finally settled in the United States. which he contended to be still relevant for our time and age. where he taught first in New York. before he could have read Shestov's book. In the 1930s. He is famous for his attempt at reviving the idea of Natural Right. Finally. then in Chicago. 2. as well as for his rediscovery of the classical philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. One reaches no plausible aim by covering up this contrast. the hen anagkaion different. The same complex of ideas received a full treatment in a series of lectures given in Chicago in 1952and partially published two years later. to be held in November 1946. But the thing is present from the outset in his writings.Every synthesis is in fact a choice either for Jerusalem or for Athens" (Voegelin et al. is the life that is devoted to knowledge and looking for it."and so on. See the quotation by Goethe in Strauss 1952: 5. It only announces a lecture by the same title. to which he devoted one of his most well-known books. Britain. hence. On the content of this contrast. Among the people who took up Shestov's yoked pair. the earliest occurrence I know of is a letter to Karl Lowith. 1ll).' As for the formula. . on the occasion of a paper given in Jerusalem (!). probably alluded to in Strauss 1935: 28. 1946 (Strauss 1983a: 108. But there the names of Athens and Jerusalem are missing. if we take the phrase in its broadest meaning-that is. in a Hebrew translation (Strauss 1979).236 PoeticsToday19:2 tion between Hellenism and Hebraism. from the late 1940s.2There the faithful city stands for prophecy. Strauss put the theme of "Athensand Jerusalem" at the very core of his later thought. Leo Strauss must probably be given pride of place. 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). some years before 1964."two "worldviews. In 1951. They make their first. if we read them as they wanted to be read. the relationship between both cities that stand for two "cultures. From the vantage[the only necessary thing] is totally point of the Bible. life of science. Strauss wrote: "Classical authors bore witness to the fact that truly human life. and Athens for political philosophy. dated from August 15.

The theme finally becomes central in 1967. only "as long as we speak politically. 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. But the one thing needful proclaimed by the Bible is the very opposite of the one thing needful proclaimed by Greek philosophy. It consists of two heterogeneous elements. But all these attempts have failed. nay necessary. Machiavelli's blasphemies) under 3.e. 5. A useful introduction appears in Sales i Coderch and Montserrat i Molas 1991. the one thing needful is obedient love. On the date. It has already puzzled several scholars. crudely. not to say a recantation: Speaking of the Western tradition as Strauss did is "impossible . see ibid. Both philosophy and the Bible assert that there is ultimately one thing. is a forgotten way of reading. On Strauss's thought in general.5 so a frank avowal of perplexity might be the least dishonorable evasion.: xxxi-xxxii.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. On the "classical struggle in the Middle Ages. of two elements which are ultimately incompatible with each other-the Hebrew element and the Greek element. according to philosophy. he rediscovered an art of writing. (Strauss 1989: 72-73) Unfortunately. too: Since "people write as they read" (Strauss 1952: 144). The Western tradition does not allow of a synthesis of its two elements. the best overview I know of is Marshall 1985 (which has exceptionally rich footnotes). On Strauss's hermeneutics.6 Unfortunately for our present purpose. some lines afterwards. and one thing only.. and necessarily so. and he concealed what he believed to have found. we read an important qualification. see Brague 1991. of the antagonism between Jerusalem and Athens.: 165."Muslim" of Understanding GreekPhilosophy Brague* LeoStrauss's 237 [Western] tradition has two roots. though. between faith and philosophy. and Rosen 1987: 107-38. on the occasion of the publication of the proceedings of a conference given in the same year under this very title (Strauss 1983b). the one thing needful is free inquiry."3 By this token." and acceptable. we cannot ascertain to what extent Strauss meant his own statements seriously. 6. . needful for man. Between Athens and Jerusalem: To and Fro The main discovery that Strauss made. 4. in the last analysis. and we speak rightly. Strauss 1989: 72-73... According to the Bible.. which the present essay presupposes and completes. 22. i." see ibid. Hence such sentences as: "Let us then keep them (sc.. or claimed to have made. he wrote in the same way as the authors he studied are supposed to have done.4 Again. See Momigliano 1987: 197 n. . We speak. but only of their tension: this is the secret of the vitality of the West. 198. This text may be the same as the one referred to in Strauss 1983a.

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

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

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

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

One often gets the impression that. To be sure. has an authentic ring. For the danger to be coped with is itself as old as philosophy. The danger is older than they are-as the case of Socrates illustrates. barring some details. Farabi "just cribbed the whole thing" from some secondrate treatise of late Hellenistic origin. . Esotericism as a means of communicating dangerous truths without endangering one's own security or civil peace is as old as philosophy. broadly speaking. and hence of an esoteric interpretation of texts. The classical study on the historical background is Meyerhof 1930. 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). a view criticized by Strauss (Strauss 1945: 359. according to Walzer.242 PoeticsToday19:2 from an uninterrupted chain of direct master-disciple transmission that reaches back to the last scions of Greek philosophical schools. supported by Richard Walzer. Nevertheless. to put it bluntly. Stroumsa 1991. is not essentially linked to the idea of religious orthodoxy. In any case. Ibn Abi Usaybi'a n. raises still other questions: Can we speak of Farabi's interpretation of the Greeks as his own achievement. Farabi'stext is not devoid of any self-praise:He wants to appear as the last heir of antique wisdom.: 604-5. We can spot traces of this basic attitude in the ancient world prior to the emergence of monotheistic world religions. which presumes the presence of a historical continuity between later Greek (pagan) thought and Islam. His book Persecution theArt of Writing witness to this. 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. 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. his account. 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. Discussion in S. EsotericStyle In any event. but Farabi himself may have taken up ideas from the Hellenistic (Stoic or middle Platonic) interpretation of Plato.'3 Now. 377). this claim.d.viewed against the background 13. 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. The possibility of an esoteric meaning.

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

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

however. the use of esoteric style is more convenient when a religious orthodoxy has seized power. . for (according to) a habit we follow. 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. There are some examples of such writers. See Brague 1993b: 99. we cover up truths by words. It should be noted. Translation in Pines 1980: 185-86. Strauss 1981:19-20. Hints are not enough. 2:377).19 In view of such examples. well as the anonymous authors of as the Encyclopedia thePureBrethren."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.Now. Maimonides is among them. 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. we read words that are to be translated otherwise. 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). 19. that the text of this crucial passage is not entirely sound. readers may mistake their own fancies for the elicitation of the secret meaning the author intended to veil/unveil in his or her work. is entirely different from that of authors who neither say nor indicate anything of that kind" (Strauss 1959: 224). He then adds that there now book in Strauss 1979: 116with. where the Bible and Plato's dialogues are played off against one another. 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. Therefore." Otherwise. It must be said somewhere: "This very work you are actually reading is an esoteric work. In Dieterici's edition. expressions and indications in order that we should not be (forced to abandon our present way of life)" (Ihwan as-Safa' 1983. brother. on the other hand. who wrote: "Know. 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. that in this of epistle (risala)we have made clear what final end is sought. at least in the introduction to the GuideforthePerplexed. 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).

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

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

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

and consequently. 3 (VIII. Revelation (in philosophical terms: man's relationship to the Absolute) does not take place through history--although it does take place in history. whereas common people are paid lip service and consolidated in their unfounded but socially useful opinions by edifying speeches. III. 27. he is a follower of Maimonides. 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). According to the former. therefore no idea of a salvation history is available (Falaturi1977). was essentially a privilege of 'the few'" (Strauss 1952: 34). consequently.26The same holds true for the idea of a "philosophy of the elite. A greater or lesser degree of esotericism can be apposite in certain times. quoted in Walzer 1949: 39. 26.He quotes fascinating statements by Ibn Tibbon according to which esotericism is a necessity under certain circumstances only and. The general trend The issue at stake is toward progress: Enlightenment increases steadily. or science. esotericism cannot be provisory. on the other hand. The title "Philosophy of the Elite" occurs in the so-called . TheIdeaof Elite Strauss'sesotericist hermeneutics supposes that philosophical writings are genuinely addressed to elite readers to whom their real purpose is disclosed. may vary according to them. for instance in Galen. On this point. This is more in keeping with Muslim than with Jewish views. This idea has clear antecedents in later Greek philosophy. 1983b: 172). 656 Kuehn). His view of history is a static one."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).. Since Socrates always addressed a single man. because of man's historical nature. The elite may consist of one individual."27 25. Therefore. 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. apparently denies progress in quite a radical way. Maimonides' early commentators viewed esoteric communication as a device whose usefulness varies according to the more or less widespread enlightenment of their contemporaries. See Porphyry 1856: Prologue. esoteric writing is "Socratic"(Strauss 1939b: 535.puls. 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. too. See De dif.25 is the provisional character of esotericism or its definitive necessity. Razi (1939: 301). Strauss'soutlook.

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

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

his 1936 French essay on Farabi'sand Maimonides' political science. 1866: 8.252 PoeticsToday19:2 obscure phrases. which behooves the scholar. ancient idea of Law as of a unified. is particularly instrumental to our understanding of what is at stake with the "Athens and Jerusalem" theme. the Islamic-Jewish world is said to resemble classical Greece (Strauss 1952: 9. "strove downwards to the depths of pre-'Christian' Jewish as well as GrecoEuropean mind" (Strauss 1923: 241a). a civil law and a moral law. as these are. 18-19. 33-36. 1:1oolol. The duty of communicating one's results.Plato'sLawsare the standard work on prophecy and shari'ah. but by the original. in his introduction to the Warsof the Lord. because they are not led. total order of human life. in my opinion. is deduced from an ontology that Gersonides. For example.And actually. In other words: because they are disciples of Plato and not disciples of Christians"(Strauss 1935: 62). "Islamic and Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages are more 'primitive' than modern philosophers. 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. 6-30. Or again: "Judaism and Islam on the one hand and Christianity on the other. 21). leadingideauponwhichGreeks Jews agreeis precisely law the idea of divine Law as of a uniqueand all-encompassing that is at the same time a religiouslaw.a Greek philosophyof divineLaw lies at the groundof Jewishand Muslimphilosophy of Torahor of shari'ah: accordingto Avicenna. 2. if we are to trust Strauss." As against Christianity. We read at the beginning: What lead to the breakwith ancient thoughtwas neither the Bible nor the and and Koran.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). and so forth.but perhapsthe New Testament. Strauss expresses this idea in a text that. (Strauss 1936c: 2. 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. Nietzsche's critique of culture. see Strauss 1935: 79-86). and 5. on Reformation. doubtlessReformation modand The ern philosophy. Strauss 1946: 338) We can find other statements to the same effect. by the derivative idea of natural right. 1984. If Christianity is seen as a shallow .

seen as the passage from the cosmos to the human soul. "new commandment. Still more remarkable is the fact that. on the other hand. as it commonly is.' before philosophy" (Strauss 1935: 86). We could complement Strauss's explicit contrast of Athens and Jerusalem by our giving names to their possible coming together. See. What is more. on the other hand.Brague * Leo Strauss's "Muslim"Understanding of Greek Philosophy 253 phenomenon that underlies and conceals the deeper truth of both Athens and Jerusalem. Strauss draws a parallel between cosmos and Law: "The Torah is."Both "Athens"(the cosmos) and "Jerusalem"(revealed Law) are basically laws. on the one hand. as 'world. This statement is an obvious truth. the same idea of Law holds true for the "world. Aquinas's treatise on the laws in Summatheologica. and the Socratic revolution. 90-108. for example. and to their greatest divergence. in John's Gospel. we read under his pen phrases like "the whole kingdom of darkness with Thomas Aquinas at its head" (Strauss 1968: 213). Strauss generalizes it and supposes that the content of any Revelation must be a law (Strauss 1983b: 234." It does not seem that Strauss has reflected on the parallel between the passage from the Old Covenant to the New. 106.31 utterly absent from the New is Testament. Ia . q. "Revelation. Bernard of Clairvaux 1963 [1145?]:418 (Jesus as a legislator). like the world. By so doing. but should systematically neglect. Christianity does not present itself as a Law. from the law to Jesus Christ as the man on the one hand. as understood by Jews and Muslims. 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. which occurs in some Christian writers. that is. What does exist there is the idea of a "New Covenant" or."so the characterization of Christianity-even by its own supporters-as a "New Law" should not be taken for granted. Silence is for Strauss the best way to indicate that a subject does not deserve interest (Strauss 1958: 30). esp. it is little wonder that Strauss should not simply forget (Beneton 1987: 79-80). according to Strauss. The phrase "new law" (kainos nomos). not even as a "New Law. 244). q. IIae. 31. every Christian element in Western history. had the form of Law" (Strauss 1937: 97).

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

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