Martin E. Marty: Strauss and Judaism

Roundup: Talking About History

[Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at]

The Chronicle of Higher Education keeps paying attention to religion, a fact that many of us in academe cheer. The April 14 issue features Richard Wolin's discussion of Leo Strauss ("Leo Strauss, Judaism, and Liberalism"). Strauss on religion? Wasn't he the inspiration to the neo-cons who were instrumental in generating ideology for, and helping start, the Iraq war? What was religious about them and that? Wasn't he the great "close reader" of Plato -- which means "Athens," not "Jerusalem"? Wolin spends little time reviewing to what extent Strauss's thought was responsible for neo-conservative war impulses, but leans toward the school of thought that says "a teacher can't be responsible for his students' use and misuse." Wolin has something else on his mind, something that receives fewer headlines but deserves notice: Strauss's attitudes toward Judaism, and how it "fit" with his version of anti-liberalism.

Strauss was a presence at the University of Chicago during my student and early teaching days, but most of us who were not in the Straussian elect only knew of the mystique and did not penetrate the teaching. I've since read him with some interest, even if not with much background. Wolin takes off from four new publications of old works by Strauss or writings about him. It turns out that early on Strauss really did take up the "Athens versus Jerusalem" issues, and, for all his celebration of Athens-reason, was uneasy with where it took moderns, especially Jews. In 1967 "he pondered at length the 'theological-political question'" of whether reason or revelation represented the royal road to truth. In one of the new books, Heinrich Meier argues that this theme was central to Strauss's thought as he tried to investigate "ultimate truths."

The early writings include essays such as "Why We Remain Jews": "Since a very, very early time the main theme of my reflections has been what is called the 'Jewish question.'" Strauss feared mere assimilation, a course taken by some notable Jewish intellectuals in Weimar, pre-Nazi, Germany. He sought "Jewish authenticity," and therefore took the sacred texts of biblical Judaism seriously. He defended "revelation" against Spinoza's dismissals. Wolin then catches Strauss in various binds: Can revelation really spell out "ultimate truth" on reasonable grounds? Take it on faith -- but then on what reasonable grounds argue that monotheism is superior to other beliefs? So Strauss struggled.

Wolin decides that Strauss found liberalism uncongenial, and advocated anti-liberal esoteric circles of esoteric-minded intellectuals who formed an elite. They had little faith in "public reason." And he ends by quoting a text that he calls "hair-raising." In May 1933, the year of Hitler's rise to dictatorship, Strauss wrote to a Heidegger student that "just because Germany has turned to the Right and has expelled us [the German Jews] it simply does not follow that the principles of the Right are therefore to be rejected. On the contrary, only on the basis of principles of the Right -- fascist, authoritarian, imperial -- is it possible in a dignified manner, without the ridiculous and pitiful appeal to the 'inalienable rights of man,' to protest against the mean nonentity" -- that is, Hitler and the Nazis. Wolin: "In other words, 'normal fascism' is the best means of combating the Nazis' 'radical fascism'? [!]"

Instead: Let's give "Jerusalem" another look!

For Further Reading:
For another "giant of the thirties" -- Mircea Eliade -- who left pro-fascist traces, see Jeremy Biles's Sightings from last Thursday, April 20. And here is Wolin's Strauss bibliography: Daniel Tanguay, Leo Strauss: An Intellectual Biography; Heinrich Meier, Leo Strauss and the Theological-Political Problem; Leo Strauss: The Early Writings, 1921-1932; Steven B. Smith, Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism.

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