Sunday, June 25, 2006

'Reading Leo Strauss,' by Steven B. Smith - New York Times: "Throughout his writings," Smith concludes, "Strauss remained deeply skeptical of whether political theory had any substantive advice or direction to offer statesmen." This view was shaped by his wary observation of the systems of totalitarianism that dominated two major European nations in the 1930's, Nazism in Germany and Communism in the Soviet Union. As a result, he strenuously resisted the notion that politics could have a redemptive effect by radically transforming human existence. Such thinking could scarcely be further from the vision of neoconservative policy intellectuals that the global projection of American power can effect radical democratic change. "The idea," Smith contends, "that political or military action can be used to eradicate evil from the human landscape is closer to the utopian and idealistic visions of Marxism and the radical Enlightenment than anything found in the writings of Strauss."

...The Jewish-theological side of Strauss certainly had no perceptible effect on his American disciples, most of them Jews and all of them, as far as I know, secular. In these concerns, Strauss was thoroughly the intellectual product of 1920's German Jewry. Like others of that period, including Walter Benjamin, he approached the idea of revealed religion with the utmost seriousness. It does not appear that he remained a believing Jew, yet he was not prepared simply to dismiss the claims of Jerusalem against Athens.

On the contrary, the sweeping agenda of reformist or revolutionary reason first put forth in the Enlightenment worried him deeply, and he saw religion, with its assertion of a different source of truth, as a necessary counterweight to the certitudes of the 18th century. His vision of reality was, to use a term favored by both Scholem and Benjamin, 'dialectic.' Why some of his most prominent students missed this essential feature of his thought, and why they turned to the right, remains one of the mysteries of his intellectual legacy."


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