Leo Strauss on Jerusalem and Athens: A Girardian Analysis

By Ranieri, John | Shofar, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Leo Strauss on Jerusalem and Athens: A Girardian Analysis


Ranieri, John, Shofar


For Strauss, Jerusalem and Athens are the two roots of Western civilization, with Jerusalem representing biblical revelation and Athens representing philosophy. Their relationship is one of "fundamental opposition," an opposition that constitutes the vitality of western civilization. In Strauss's reading, to choose between Jerusalem and Athens is to choose between "life in obedience to divine law or life in freedom" Girard, too, recognizes the tension between Athens and Jerusalem, but he does not conceive of it as Strauss does. The question to be considered will be whether or not Strauss's account of the relationship between Jerusalem and Athens has left him susceptible to Girard's critique of philosophy, particularly his critique of Heidegger. Has Strauss overlooked philosophy's complicity in scapegoating, and its cultural role in hiding the victim from view?

Even when he does not speak of it directly, "the Jewish question" is at the center of Leo Strauss's life and work. Born in Germany into an orthodox Jewish family in 1899, he developed an early enthusiasm for political Zionism, as well as a strong interest in Jewish thought, writing on (among others) Maimonides, Spinoza, Moses Mendelssohn, and Hermann Cohen. Later in life, Strauss would observe how, without being aware of it and without rebellion, he had, even at a relatively early stage, drifted far from the religious observance and belief of his parents' home.(2) Yet he remained profoundly conscious of his Jewish identity.

In part, this was due to his awareness of belonging to a people whose religious, intellectual, and cultural achievements formed one of the two major traditions of Western civilization. But it is difficult to read Strauss without recognizing that he was equally cognizant of the fact that being a Jew made him a member of a historically persecuted minority. As a young German Jew living in the Weimar Republic he was confident that, despite a certain degree of social discrimination, Jews could enjoy security within a liberal democracy. Yet this confidence was not untroubled. In a 1962 lecture he recalls how as a child his parents had taken in some Russian Jewish refugees fleeing from tsarist pogroms. Seeing these victims of persecution with his own eyes, he realized that similar acts of violence might possibly occur in Germany. Even though this experience was soon forgotten and overlaid by pleasant memories of life among his non-Jewish neighbors, Strauss stresses how it still "went to my bones."(3) In 1932 he was awarded a Rockefeller Grant to study abroad. With the rise of National Socialism, Strauss decided it would be best not to return to Germany. The young scholar made a wise decision, because apart from his wife and children, all of his remaining relatives perished in Hitler's Germany or were killed after having escaped.(4)

It is scarcely surprising then, to find Strauss stating, "I believe I can say, without any exaggeration, that since a very, very early time the main theme of my reflections has been what is called the `Jewish question.'"(5) To those who know Strauss primarily as a political philosopher, this assertion may seem somewhat startling. Yet from his perspective, not only is there no conflict between his work as a political philosopher and his engagement with the Jewish question, but the two areas are, in fact, directly connected. He writes in the preface to his book, Spinoza's Critique of Religion, "From every point of view it looks as if the Jewish people were the chosen people, at least in the sense that the Jewish problem is the most manifest symbol of the human problem insofar as it is a social or political problem."(6)

With this observation, Strauss is not reducing the Jewish problem to a dilemma capable of being solved on the level of politics. On the contrary, his insight into the fundamental nature of the Jewish problem stems from his realization that any purely political solution to the problem is inadequate. …

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