Bernstein, Jeffrey Alan. “Leo Strauss on the Borders of Judaism, Philosophy, and History”, (Suny Series in the Thought and Legacy of Leo Strauss), SUNY Press, 2015.
Connecting Philosophy, Jewish Thought and History
I recently studied Spinoza with Jeffrey Bernstein and was amazed at how much I did not know and how much I want to know—but then, that is philosophy. Bernstein mentioned that he had a book coming out on Leo Strauss and I was immediately curious to know about him so I sat down to learn. I always find it fascinating how much one sentence can make you think and here I found myself contemplating almost every thought and while this might be time consuming but it was what I had been trained to do as a philosophy major.
My own knowledge of Strauss is sparse—we learned about him a bit in my youth group many years ago and then in college I took a survey course in Jewish thinkers and we spent a lecture on him. I had not thought about him in years so this book was a reawakening about not just Strauss but to the history of philosophy. Strauss is a classic study of order as it emanates from “revealed law” (Jerusalem) and philosophical thought (Athens).
Bernstein’s basis for his study includes the study of published texts, Strauss’s intellectual biography, history and correspondence, archival material and transcripts from seminars. What we really see is that the relation between Judaism and philosophy is evident throughout his career and his influence on both of these cannot be overestimated.
In his introduction, Bernstein states that Strauss believed that the search for wisdom was tantamount. His approach was nondogmatic—he would take a philosophical stance and would state the limitations of that position. He was not what is known as a neutral thinker and regarded as a radical thinker. He was able to get to the gist of the problem while showing it to be either derivative or fundamental. With this approach added to the fact that he did not give his own positions, he was indeed not neutral. Strauss explains this by saying that Western civilization is fundamental tense because it is the life between two codes. We can only live life if we live the conflict. Man cannot be both theologian and philosopher—he must choose one over the other with the theologian being open to what philosophy provides and the philosopher being open to theological concepts.
The Strauss that Bernstein gives us is (and I use Bernstein’s language) “one who recollects the premodern understanding of the theological-political problem and Jerusalem and Athens”, one who “appreciates the eminently philosophical stance of being a citizen of one city while remaining on the border of the other city” and one who “attempts to recover and reoriginate these two philosophical stances through the practice of reading, writing and showing how they are, in fact, possible today.
Obviously this is a test for academics and I do not believe that this is the kind of book one would read in bed. There is a lot of information in some 228 pages but even more important is the fact that this is book that leads us to think. While not written for the layman, it is a book that anyone can look at but understanding will come only over time and synthesis of what is contained therein. To give you an idea if what the book contains, below is a copy of the table of contents:
Table of Contents
Part I. On the Way to Jerusalem and Athens
- The Theological-Political Problem, Strauss’s Critique of Modern “Jewish Philosophy,” and the Legacy of Kant
- Strauss’s Maimonides
Part II. Jerusalem and Athens in Deed
- Philosophy as a Platonic Dialogue, or Jerusalem and Athens in Jerusalem
- The Theological-Political Significance of “What Is Political Philosophy?”
Part III. Conclusion
- The Transmission of Philosophy as a Way of Life: Maimonides Viewed Through a Spinozan Lens