There is an essay in Leo Strauss’s book Persecution and the Art of Writing called “The Law of Reason in the Kuzari.” The Kuzari, written by the medieval Jew Judah Halevi, is “devoted to the defence of the Jewish religion against its most important adversaries in general, and the philosophers in particular” (98). It shows a conversation between a king and a Jewish scholar who tries to convince the king to convert to Judaism. Before that conversation, the King also talks to a philosopher who fails to persuade him to make philosophy his public religion.
The Kuzari belongs to the theme “persecution and the art of writing,” for the following reason. That theme concerns above all “the problem of the relation between philosophy and politics” (preface). In Judaism, “the sacred doctrine is, at least primarily, the legal interpretation of the Divine Law” (19). The primary category is not faith but law. Law is a political affair. The lingering effect of the philosopher’s speech on the scholar’s defense of Judaism before the king comprises the philosophical side of the conflict between philosophy and politics in this case. How under certain circumstances can one present the philosophical alternative to the religious law without undermining that law and the community and thereby becoming an enemy to be persecuted?
The conflict that gives rise to the art of writing between the lines need not pit philosophy against a religious community. Any orthodoxy, religious or not, produces conflict for the philosopher, who cannot rest content with orthodoxy. Although Strauss discovered the art of writing in studying the medieval Jewish and Islamic thought (8), he traced its presence throughout our great tradition of political philosophy from a period before the rise of the three monotheisms to our modern secular liberal orthodoxy. We could extend the theme to postmodern orthodoxy also.
If you have ever read about Strauss and Straussians, you might have heard that they place importance on the numerology of writing, counting paragraphs and paying special attention to what happens in the middle – the middle of a chapter, the middle of a book, or the middle item in a list, for instance. The idea is that an author can subtly indicate that one among a number of ideas is of greater importance than the others by the placement of that idea in the text. One method of doing that is by paying lip service to orthodoxy at the beginning and end of a work, which careless readers are likely to focus on the most, and burying heterodox opinions in the center.
There are other techniques of writing between the lines that can be used to convey meaning subtly to careful readers. You might think that authors don’t write that way, or that they don’t do it every time a Straussian claims they do, or that even if they do it sometimes, they shouldn’t, or something along those lines. In my opinion, the evidence is persuasive that there are writers who have used techniques of concealing a meaning in their text. Strauss provides some of that evidence in this book, as his students do in other books. In the Kuzari essay, Strauss also employs such writing. What is essential in the end is not the technique but the subject matter that forces an art of writing in the first place. Paying attention to the technique, however, might help call attention to the subject matter, especially for those of you who are unfamiliar with “Straussian” esoteric writing.
Strauss’s Kuzari essay has an introduction and five numbered sections. The numbered sections of the Kuzari essay all begin with a partially capitalized phrase. Here are the opening sentences of each section in order: (1) “IT IS NOT safe to discuss any topic of the Kuzari before one has considered the literary character of the book”; (2) “THE Law of Reason is mentioned first by the philosopher, the first interlocutor of the king”; (3) “THE Law of Reason which is not mentioned at all in the conversations of the king with the Christian and the Muslim, occurs more than once in his conversations with the Jewish scholar”; (4) “THE scholar’s first approving mention of the Law of Reason occurs some time after the king had joined the Jewish community and begun to study the Torah and the books of the prophets”; (5) “THE scholar uses one and the same term, ‘rational nomoi; first for designating the man-made pagan codes, of which he thoroughly disapproved, and then for designating rules akin to the ‘rational laws,’ the ‘rational commandments’ in the sense of the kalam, or for the framework of every code, of which he naturally approves.” Ignoring for a moment the last sentence, which presupposes more understanding of the content of Strauss’s essay than it is our purpose to provide here, notice the following patterns. Sentences 2 and 3 and sentences 4 and 5 open with the same words; sentence 1 is an anomaly. Sentences 2-5 capitalize a single word; sentence 1 capitalizes 3 words. Sentences 2 and 3 discuss the Law of Reason. Sentences 4 and 5 discuss the scholar. Sentence 1, by contrast, emphasizes primarily, at its outset, not the book and not its literary character, but the question of safety, which is somehow related to negation, to “it is not.”
What brings the “it is not” of negation together with “safety,” “the law of reason,” and “the scholar” and connects these topics under the umbrella of “persecution and the art of writing”? The answer is in section 1 – but you might miss it if you are not reading with uncommon care and catching the hints:
Halevi knew too well that a genuine philosopher can never become a genuine convert to Judaism or to any other revealed religion. For, according to him, a genuine philosopher is a man such as Socrates who possesses ‘human wisdom’ and is invincibly ignorant of ‘Divine wisdom.’ It is the impossibility of converting a philosopher to Judaism which he demonstrates ad oculos by omitting a disputation between the scholar and the philosopher [the Jewish scholar disputes with the king, converting him, but he does not dispute with the philosopher]. Such a disputation, we may say to begin with, is impossible: contra negantem principia non est disputandum. The philosopher denies as such the premises on which any demonstration of the truth of any revealed religion is based. (105).
The first section on the Kuzari begins emphatically, though implicitly and through an art of writing, with the philosophical denial of the premises of the Jewish scholar: “IT IS NOT.” It immediately situates that denial in its political context by continuing to speak of what is “safe” and affirming that the Kuzari is “devoted to the defence of the Jewish religion.” Naturally, Strauss does not clam that Halevi is a philosopher who denies the premises of the Jewish religion. Rather, in a paragraph that begins with the words, “to return to safer ground,” Strauss supposes that Halevi may have been a philosopher “for a very short time,” a “spiritual hell” after which “he returned to the Jewish fold” – but not without philosophy having left its impression on him, teaching him “the enormous temptation, the enormous danger of philosophy” (109). Precisely because he had experienced that temptation and danger, he avoided presenting a disputation between the scholar and the philosopher. Although “there can be no doubt…that the arguments of the philosopher could have been answered by the scholar…it is hard to tell whether one or the other of the readers would not have been more impressed by the argument of the philosopher than by the rejoinder of the scholar” (109). Philosophy is dangerous – “it is not safe” – and there is a responsible way of writing about it even by those who believe that they can face and overcome the danger it represents.
So in Strauss’s essay on a book (the Kuzari) that deals implicitly with the possible conflict between philosophy and politics (religious law), a conflict necessitating an art of writing between the lines, Strauss himself writes between the lines to avoid having the dangerous consequences of that conflict exacerbated through his essay. Some of you, wishing to move on in a hurry, might conclude as follows: Leo Strauss is an unbelieving Jew who protected himself against accusations of unbelief and preserved what he thought was a noble adherence to Judaism through public, exoteric defense of Judaism and private, esoteric, concealed, defense of philosophy (esoteric writing is the only “private” writing possible in a published text, which is in principle “public”). Believing Jews might thank Strauss for making the threat from philosophy more clear and distinct but lament its victory over his soul. The non-believing non-philosophers might wonder why Strauss was not more open in attacking and undermining revealed religion. Why did he need to treat it piously at all? Did he merely accept its political utility? That’s a start. But he failed to see that what he regards as its political utility is something that brings more harm than good: Open secularism (if not Satanism) is to be preferred. Straussianism is reactionary. Religion is not to be defended but defeated.
All these responses and others like them are somehow misguided. They presuppose the key terms of the debate, which should not be so easily presupposed. Are we sure that we understand sufficiently well what Strauss meant and what we mean by the terms “philosophy,” “law,” “religion,” “piety,” “belief,” “utility,” and so on? Are we not overly confident that we know what these things are? Strauss was preoccupied in his life with the problem of Socrates – as you saw, Socrates comes up even in the essay on the Kuzari. Socrates is famous to us for his having had conversations with people who thought they knew important things in which he revealed that they do not know what they thought they knew, what they profess to know, and what in some cases they were paid to teach. Not all of the people he refuted were so just as to be thankful for the education they received by his cross-examination: he was ultimately condemned to die for his activity. When we reflect on Strauss and the art of writing between the lines in the context of the conflict between philosophy and politics, we should be prepared to catch ourselves believing that we know these important things well enough not to be made fools of by Socratic/Straussian cross-examination.
Strauss is helpful in the last instance not because he has a dogmatic teaching about philosophy and religion but because, whether we know it or not, his questions are our questions, the questions closest to us and most important to us in our human essence – even if we deny that we have one, for the denial, like the affirmation, raises questions. Questioning what we think we know about the most important things leads us in passing to question what others think they know about them (with the genuine intent to learn from them about those matters, an intent almost sure to be frustrated) and that activity cannot help but risk conflict with today’s “professors” of the prevailing orthodoxy. This enduring conflict is not driven primarily by competing answers or axiom systems. It is a conflict between the open way of questioning, aware of its own ignorance, and the dead ends of ignorant dogmatism.
Straussianism is an open invitation, hidden in plain sight, to give precedence to the question over the answer, without overlooking the importance of answers in politics and elsewhere. We can leave it an open question whether the invitation implies a decision for philosophy against religion. But at the same time we should not be content to leave all the hard questions open, as though “being open” was itself the highest virtue. As Strauss writes in On Tyranny:
“It is impossible to think about the problems without becoming inclined toward a solution, toward one or the other of the very few typical solutions. Yet as long as there is no wisdom but only quest for wisdom, the evidence of all solutions is necessarily smaller than the evidence of the problem. Therefore the philosopher ceases to be a philosopher at the moment at which the ‘subjective certainty’ of a solution becomes stronger than his awareness of the problematic character of that solution. At that moment the sectarian is born. The danger of succumbing to the attraction of solutions is essential to philosophy which, without incurring this danger, would degenerate into playing with the problems. But the philosopher does not necessarily succumb to this danger.” (On Tyranny, 197).
Only after the most single-minded search for an answer, as reflected, for instance, in Strauss’s meticulous scholarship, often dependent on exact knowledge of foreign languages, exhaustive familiarity with ancient sources, and the penetrating insight that even compendious learning alone does not guarantee but which in many cases it requires, can the question truly remain open before us in its dignity and splendor, even as we take a position in relation to it. Superficial, lazy skepticism masquerading as philosophy and mouthing platitudes about openness is no substitute for the beautiful operations indicated above, revealing mysteries and delights to the desiring ones.
Dr. Michael Millerman holds a Ph.D in Political Science from the University of Toronto. He is the leading translator from Russian into English of Russian political philosopher Alexander Dugin. His first book, Beginning with Heidegger: Strauss, Rorty, Derrida, Dugin and the Philosophical Constitution of the Political, comes out in 2020.
1 “Revelation as understood by Jews and Muslims has the character of Law (torah, sharia), rather than of Faith. Accordingly, what first came to the sight of the Islamic and Jewish philosophers in their reflections on Revelation was not a creed or a set of dogmas, but a social order, if an all-comprehensive order, which regulates not merely actions but thoughts or opinions as well” (9-10).