Jerry Z. Muller: Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes

Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes Book Cover Professor of Apocalypse: The Many Lives of Jacob Taubes
Jerry Z. Muller
Princeton University Press
2022
Hardback $39.95 / £30.00
656

Reviewed by: Michael Maidan (Independent Scholar)

Woody Allen’s 1983 movie Zelig portrays an individual with an uncanny ability to adapt to his environment to the point that, like a chameleon, he transforms and becomes one with his surroundings. Examined by a psychiatrist, he declares himself a psychiatrist and starts using psychoanalytic terms. In the company of Irish customers in a bar during St. Patrick’s Day, his physiognomy changes, and he becomes Irish. But he is neither a psychiatrist nor Irish.

To some extent, this biography of Jacob Taubes (1923-1987), rabbi, philosopher of Judaism, and sociologist of religion who wandered from Vienna to Zurich, from Zurich to New York, Jerusalem, and Berlin, who cultivated close links with scholars both from the left and from the right, reads like the history of the Zelig character, never totally to ease with his milieu.

To disclose the secret of this enigmatic character and to paint a rich picture of his times is the aim of this book, six hundred pages strong, which documents Taubes’ life and works in exquisite detail. Muller worked on published books —including Taubes’ first wife’s penned Divorcing— archival materials and dozens of interviews with Taubes’ friends, colleagues, and acquaintances.

Muller mentions that he spent over ten years researching Taubes, trying to unveil the secret of his Zelig. This undertaking may raise some eyebrows, as Taubes’ contribution to scholarship is scarce, and some, including Muller, consider it derivative. When he died in 1987, Taubes left behind one book, published forty years earlier, and papers, book chapters, and reviews from the later fifties and early sixties of the last century. It fell to Muller to balance Taubes’ many personal failings, both as an individual and as a scholar, with his contributions to the study of apocalyptic religion as a form of social criticism. To some extent, Muller performs this balancing act by invoking Taubes’ less than stellar mental health, which in his late years exploded into full-blown clinical depression. It begs the question of why Muller, skeptical of the contents of Taubes’ ideas, invested ten years in writing Taubes’ intellectual biography. At least part of the answer can be found in the credits and acknowledgment section at the book’s end. Muller mentions there having met Taubes in Jerusalem. Muller was at that time looking for a subject to write his Ph.D. thesis. He was interested in processes of radicalization and de-radicalization of intellectuals, particularly of a group of New York intellectuals who had espoused leftist views but eventually became hard-core members of the neoconservative movement. Muller finally dropped the subject, writing a thesis on the case of sociologist Hans Freyer and his transition from Nazi sympathizer to liberal democrat. His approach, in this case, seems similar.

Muller’s account is thorough and starts with a portrait of Taubes’ family, which traced their roots to Talmudic scholars and Hassidic rabbis on both sides of the family. Taubes’ father, Zwi Taubes, was an orthodox rabbi, but his education also included secular studies. Taubes’ mother trained as a teacher of Judaic subjects. Muller takes time to explain the differences and nuances between traditional and the different streams of modern Jewish orthodox education. Finally, he refers to Zwi Taube’s main teachers and hints at some continuity between their teachings and Jacob Taubes’ lifelong fascination with early Christianity.

Jacob Taubes started his Jewish education early at home and later at a school that integrated secular and Jewish subjects. With his family, he left Vienna months before the Anschluss for Zurich, where his father took over the spiritual direction of a synagogue. There Taubes attended university while pursuing studies of Talmud and Jewish law at home and with private tutors. He also spends a period at Montreux’s yeshiva. He qualified, eventually, as a rabbi and teacher. In 1947 he also completed the requirements for a doctorate under the direction of sociologist René König. His thesis became the first and only book he published in his life, Occidental Eschatology. Occidental Eschatology grew from an interest in Marxism and religion; it “created a usable past for contemporary radicals, for religious folks inclined towards radicalism” (71). Muller traces the origins of Occidental Eschatology to a paper that Taubes wrote for René König’s seminar on “Karl Marx’s Justification of Socialism”.  Taubes claimed that the appeal of Marx’s doctrine was not its professed scientific claims but irrational longings. Unless we postulate a divine plan for the world leading to harmony, the mere development of the productive forces does not justify the triumph of harmony rather than meaninglessness or anarchy. The pathos of Marxism rests upon a theory of human salvation and the messianic vocation of the proletariat (72).

Occidental Eschatology takes these ideas and develops them further. Taubes’ work shows the influence of, among others, the Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthazar’s theses about the importance of apocalypticism in Christianity’s history and the teachings’ role of Joachim de Fiore in the secularization of eschatological thinking. According to Muller, Taubes was also influenced by Karl Löwith’s book, From Hegel to Nietzsche, and Hans Jonas’ book on Gnosticism. Taubes borrowed extensively from both. Muller also founds influences from Heidegger’s On the Essence of Truth. Ultimately, Muller concludes that the aspirations of the work exceeded its execution (75-6).

  The next chapter in our story deals with Taubes’ move to America. Taubes was able to get an invitation to pursue post-doctoral studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), which he attended between 1947-49. There he was tutored in Talmud by Saul Lieberman and in the thought of Maimonides by Leo Strauss. JTS’s mission was to educate and ordain rabbis subscribing to the Conservative movement’s beliefs. But Taubes was not interested in becoming a rabbi. Eventually, he was offered to continue postdoctoral studies in Jerusalem under the supervision of the Kabballah scholar Gershom Scholem.

Jerusalem was the background for the first of the many crises that would punctuate the life of Taubes. Taubes and Scholem had a falling apart. Scholem accused Taubes of having revealed to another student information that Scholem had shared with Taubes in confidence. The story is well known and has been told before. What is new is that Muller shows that the break between Scholem and Taubes was not as complete as it was previously understood to be (173-179; 322-323). We will see below how the personal conflict between Taubes and Scholem spills over to a conflict about how to interpret the legacy of Walter Benjamin.

Taubes returned to the USA, managing after a while to secure appointments first in Princeton and later in Columbia. In terms of publications, this period was the most productive in his intellectual life. It was also a period of intensive networking that put Taubes in touch with a generation of young Jewish New Yorker intellectuals. For example, Muller refers to a Passover seder at the Taubes’ home in 1955, attended by Susan Sontag, Phillip Rieff, Stanley Cavell, Herbert Marcuse, and the Swedish theologian and New Testament scholar Krister Stendahl, an occasion that Cavell and Stendahl recalled half a century later. But immediately, Muller adds that some suspected that such performances were a show and that there was no real faith and commitment (226-7). Muller also quotes from a letter written by sociologist Daniel Bell to his wife, describing an encounter with Susan and Jacob Taubes. Bell writes that the Taubes couple was full of interesting talk, but they seemed to lack “a sense of the concrete” (227). The letter that Muller quotes show the gap in their political positions, with some of the arguments presented by Jacob Taubes referring to the ideas developed in Occidental Eschatology. While Taubes referred to the political potential of the eschatological dimension of religion, Bell worried about the risks of false messianism. To this, Jacob Taubes seems to have answered: “When you believe in prophecy, you run the risk of false prophets” (228). Apparently, Bell did not think highly of Taubes. Leo Strauss and Hannah Arendt concurred in their evaluation (228). But among senior scholars, he gathered enough support to get an assistant professor position to teach History and Sociology of Religion at one of the best Universities in the USA. Muller accessed the records of the ad-hoc nominating committee, and he presents an impressive list of scholars who, in general, supported Taubes’ candidature, though they were some reservations. Muller explains the novelty of the academic study of religion, which was controversial at that time. In Columbia, Religion was granted the status of a department only in 1961. At the time of Taubes’ hiring, it lacked a well-defined undergraduate curriculum, and its graduate program lacked a unifying principle. This suited Taubes fine. His courses dealt with 19th and 20th thinkers that were not taught in Columbia mainly because they fell out of the disciplines as they were then defined. Characteristically, the chapter dealing with Taubes’ Columbia years is titled “The merchant of ideas.” A later chapter, this one dealing with his work in Germany, has the title “impresario of Theory.” A provisory title for the book was, apparently, “Jacob Taubes: Merchant of Ideas and Apostle of Transgression” (according to a CV dated 2019).

Muller emphasizes the role of Taubes as a ‘merchant of ideas’ rather than an original thinker or a profound scholar. Muller writes: Taubes knew what was going on in various contexts (241-2). Much of what he knew he learned in conversation. His knowledge was wide but lacked depth. While Muller does not tire of emphasizing the shortcomings of Taubes, he also recognizes that he had a talent for making connections between ideas from different sources and was generous in sharing his knowledge with his friends.  He also had the talent to organize intellectual encounters, of which Muller cites three in Columbia, which were very successful. One was a conference with Martin Buber that led to creating a permanent Colloquy on Religion and Culture. A second project became a forum for Religion and Psychiatry, and a third was a Seminar on Hermeneutics.

Despite these successes, and his good performance as a teacher, Taubes’ felt that his position at Columbia was not strong enough. Besides, his wife Susan was not happy in New York. Starting in 1959, he began looking for a position in Germany. And already in 1961, he was appointed visiting professor at the Berlin Free University (FU). Muller provides abundant information and background on the supporters of Taubes and their moves, on the idea of a chair to study Judaism in the FU, and on the circumstances of the FU itself, in the context of the Cold War. While the position was initially a summer assignment, negotiations were on track for establishing an institute of the Science of Judaism to be directed by Taubes. There were also talks about creating an additional position as head of a Division for Hermeneutics. But initially, he did not commit himself and shuttled between Columbia and FU on alternate semesters. Finally, he obtained an even better deal. The chair was renamed Judaistik (Judaism), and he also added to the title the label “Sociology of Religion”. To add to the exceptionality of the situation, Muller mentions that Taubes was not a German citizen, a prerequisite for a position in a public university in Germany, and he was not required to have a Habilitation, usually conferred after completing a second research project and additional requirements (270).

Chapter nine reviews Taubes’ interlocutors in Berlin and Germany in general. To put it briefly, Taubes was in dialogue with probably most of the leading and would-be leading intellectuals of this period. People like Dieter Henrich, a known specialist in German Idealism, who first learn through Taubes of Marcuse’s Reason and Revolution, and Eros and Civilization, and who will visit for the first time the USA with Taubes’ help. He also interacted with Habermas, with whom he shared a position as reader and editor for the influential publisher Suhrkamp. Taubes convinced Peter Unseld, the managing director of Suhrkamp, to publish books that were broadly sociological, covering both American and French authors. The quantity, quality, and variety of books that Taubes managed to recommend for publication led Muller to ask how Taubes related to books. He infers that there is a relationship between his brilliance and a certain superficiality (282-283). Taubes had also close relationship with several other intellectuals, such as Peter Szondi, Gadamer, Eric Voegelin, Ritter, Adorno, etc. All these interactions Muller characterizes as belonging to the realm of merchant or impresario of ideas, not of real scholarship or intellectual communion of ideas.

Of this period, one of the rare publications from Taubes, The intellectuals and the University, is the one he was most proud. Muller refers to the history of this lecture, its previous versions, and contents. To some extent, this lecture parallels Occidental Eschatology, with a broad exploration of the notion of the university and its development in different countries to arrive finally at a diagnosis of the institution and of the intellectual in contemporary society. The diagnostic section parallels Taubes’ Four Ages of Reason (1956, republished 1966). It draws on ideas of the Frankfurt School, though Taubes’ version seems more radical than what was advocated by Horkheimer and Adorno at that time (284-6).

Taubes was interested in movements that were unconventional and transgressive, such as Gnosticism and apocalypticism. And, in a rare coherence of theory and practice, he also had an uncommon relationship with women. Muller lists and depicts some of his love partners, starting with his wife, Susan, whom he divorced and later committed suicide, Margherita von Brentano, who chaired the philosophy department at FU and later quarreled with Taubes, Judith Glatzer, the poet Ingeborg Bachmann, and many others. A review of this book by Mark Lilla in the New York Times carried the title “The Man Who Made Thinking Erotic”. While some of his womanizing would be considered predatory by today’s standards, Muller brings many examples in which Taubes seem to have helped and supported many young women in their academic careers.

Chapter ten explores Taube’s activity as a fully committed faculty of FU, starting in 1966. As a teacher at FU, he was appealing to students that were politically engaged, intellectually curious, and disdainful of disciplinary boundaries. But Taubes was not very interested in the routines of academic work. He was not a good advisor for dissertations and habilitations, as he did not lay down clear guidelines to help his students to complete their work in a reasonable amount of time. But Muller acknowledges that this problem was not only Taubes’ but was common among the more charismatic teachers. He was indeed a charismatic teacher, and Muller describes in some detail his presentation mode (310-311). He also taught courses with colleagues that became leading German intellectuals, such as Dieter Henrich, Michael Theunissen, and Rolf Tiedemann (who will edit for Suhrkamp the work of Walter Benjamin). For many of his classes, he relied on his teaching assistants. Apparently, he had a flair for identifying and coopting up-and-coming intellectuals that he integrated into his classes. Taubes’ weakness in his teaching, as in his writing, was the systematic explication of concepts. But his talent for concretizing concepts, for making them seem relevant and vital to his students, was unmatched. He could explain Kierkegaard’s concept of anxiety (Angst) in a more vivid way than an expert on Kierkegaard could (312).

One of the Zelig-like characteristics of Taubes was his ability to insinuate himself into different intellectual projects. One example that Muller explores in some detail is Taubes’ participation in the multidisciplinary project Poetik und Hermeneutic, where scholars of literature, philosophy, history, and other disciplines met every two years to explore a topic together. Papers were circulated ahead of the meeting, and they were discussed face to face. The oral presentations were taped, transcribed, edited, and eventually published in a volume. Muller describes the leading participants and their background, which in many cases was very different from Taubes’. Taubes did not contribute but three papers to the colloquium, but his oral participation seemed to have been well received.

Taubes was involved also in another research project, this one focusing on the idea of political theology. Three volumes were published, with introductions by Taubes.

Chapter 11 deals with Taubes and his partner von Brentano’s role in supporting the “new left” movement and the radicalization of the FU’s students in the 1960s. Taubes was not the only one taking the side of the students against the administration and the West Berlin municipality, but apparently, his role was prominent. There is information in the chapter about Taubes’ activities, his invitation to Kojève to lecture in FU on the “End of History”, and the presence of Marcuse, who lectured on the “End of Utopia”. Marcuse is displayed in a photo with Taubes and other intellectuals (342). According to Muller, Taubes sought to influence the student movement and steer its energies away from the more anarchistic tendencies. In a letter to

Hans Robert Jauss, a member of the Poetik und Hermeneutik circle, Taubes wrote: “no stone should be left unturned to save the SDS [the socialist German student union] from the precipitous path of left-wing fascism” (344). At the same time, Taubes and von Brentano were involved in a struggle with other members of the philosophy department around the political orientation of the department.

Chapter 12 covers the period between 1969 to 1975 and is supposed to document the de-radicalization and crisis of Taubes. But a large part of the chapter is devoted to aspects of Taubes’ private life. Late in the chapter we learn about the conflict between Habermas and Taubes (369-372). Muller retraces the complex reaction of Habermas to the SDS and the student movement. Taubes advised Habermas to have a more conciliatory attitude towards the movement’s leaders, advising that Habermas apparently did not follow. Another section in the chapter talks about an indirect connection between Taubes and the founding members of the “Red Army Fraction” terror group, which brought Taubes to the interest of the police (372-373). There is also a section on a counteroffensive of the Professors (373-377).

The section “Deradicalization” starts early on, in 1971, with a story about Taubes’ colleague at FE, Peter Szondi’s suicide. While not likely the reason, it seems that many in FU suspected he was led to take his life by pressure from leftist groups. Taubes himself, who was one of the most active supporters of the activist students among the members of the chaired professors, felt by 1972 that students had become intellectually rigid and dogmatic. He even discouraged Marcuse from visiting again, fearing that he may be boycotted by the activists. There is also information on internal fights in the philosophy department about appointments. Apparently, Taubes was ambivalent, supporting critiques of the increasing influence of the Marxist-oriented candidates and advising colleagues and students to overcome their tendency to sectarianism. In this, Brentano was more radical than Taubes. The remaining section of the chapter deal with family and personal matters: Taube’s divorce from von Brentano and a serious episode of mental crisis that required his hospitalization.

Chapter 13 describes Taubes’ wanderings between Berlin, New York, and Jerusalem and his struggles against his colleagues in the philosophy department who wanted to force him into retirement. Muller chooses to illuminate this period in Taubes’ life through his acrimonious fight against fellow philosopher Michael Landmen (398-408), who was one of his original sponsors when he came to Berlin. During this period also, his association with the publisher Suhrkamp was terminated. One of the reasons, besides his inability to continue to perform his duties because of his mental health, was his insistence that the collection he and Habermas edited in Suhrkamp publish books by right-wing historian Ernst Nolte. Surprisingly, Suhrkamp kept Taubes on its payroll for several years, though not as co-editor of the Theorie library. When he was finally sacked, it was because of Suhrkamp’s financial difficulties.

The years-long personal conflict between Taubes and Scholem played out also regarding their interpretation of Walter Benjamin. As Benjamin became in the 1960s an icon of the left, and as the close friendship that bound both thinkers became known, some of the recognition given to Benjamin transferred to Scholem. Scholem was well known in West Germany in the small circle of specialists in the history of religion and Jewish studies. But with the publication in 1966 of Benjamin’s letters to Scholem, Scholem’s publication of interpretative essays that explored the Jewish dimension of Benjamin’s thought, and particularly with the publication of his memoirs Walter Benjamin: Geschichte einer Freundschaft (1975), and a few years later From Berlin to Jerusalem (1977), contributed to bring the figures of Benjamin and Scholem closer. The interest in Benjamin among the German young intellectuals led to discussions about how to interpret his legacy and how Scholem and Adorno handled the publication of his letters and unpublished manuscripts. Taubes was particularly interested in a few of Benjamin’s writings, including the “Political-Theological Fragment” and the “Theses on The Philosophy of History”, which he explored at a seminar in 1968. Taubes had written a letter to the Suhrkamp publishers objecting to a possible transcription mistake in one of Benjamin’s letters and complaining that Scholem and Adorno had disregarded the importance of Asja Lācis —a communist militant close to Brecht that was Benjamin’s lover at one point— for Benjamin’s intellectual development. Scholem reacted in a letter to Adorno, characterizing Taubes as laden with ressentiment (384).

The last act in the tragedy between Scholem and Taubes took place in 1977 and had to do with Taubes’ proposal to participate in a Festschrift in honor of Scholem, something rejected outright by Scholem. Finally, Taubes participated in a congress in Scholem’s honor in Jerusalem, where he presented a paper entitled “The price of messianism”, which is critical of Scholem’s approach.

Chapter fifteen is dedicated to Taube’s fascination with the ideas of the jurist and unrepentant former Nazi supporter, Carl Schmitt. Taubes was not only interested in Schmitt’s ideas. He also tried and ultimately succeeded in meeting Schmitt face to face. This is a complicated chapter in Taubes’ life, which puzzled friends and acquaintances, and is one of the components of the complicated appeal of his personality. Muller list several grounds for Taubes’ interest in Schmitt. One is Schmitt’s claim that there is an inextricable link between theology and politics. Second, Schmitt’s erudition, his knowledge of intellectual history, and long-forgotten intellectual debates. Third, according to Taubes’ recollections, he turns to Schmitt’s concept of constitutional law to have a better understanding of modern philosophy. Another motivation was understanding how intellectuals of Schmitt’s caliber could have been involved with the Third Reich. But there was also a shared disdain for bourgeois mentality and for liberalism. Finally, Muller finds “another factor, difficult to evaluate but impossible to overlook, was that in many of the circles in which Taubes traveled (though not all), his professed admiration for Schmitt served to scandalize, thus allowing him to engage in an exhibitionist performance as a bad boy” (454). Some of the main lines of the story are well known, as they were published in a small volume published in 1987, and Taubes refers to his relationship with Schmitt in his lectures on Paul, which were published posthumously. Muller adds to the story a portrait of the person who served as an intermediary between Taubes and Schmitt, the radical German nationalist Hans-Dietrich Sander (456-460). Taubes was not the only intellectual to be in touch with Schmitt. Hans Blumenberg, among others, was also corresponding with Schmitt. But probably no major intellectual not identified with the right-wing was making it publicly.

There is another reason for the interest of Taubes in Schmitt, one that probably influenced the future reception of Schmitt among left-wing intellectuals. From Sander, Taubes learned of a supposed connection between Walter Benjamin and Schmitt. Sander shared with Taubes a letter from Benjamin to Schmitt, in which Benjamin claimed to have based his book on the Origins of Baroque Drama on Schmitt’s discussion of the idea of sovereignty. Benjamin also used Schmitt’s idea of the ‘state of exception’ in his Thesis on the Philosophy of History (Thesis 8). However, the role of this expression in Benjamin’s argument is totally different from the one used by Schmitt. After Schmitt’s death, Taubes gave a lecture entitled Carl Schmitt – Apocalyptic Prophet of the Counterrevolution. In his lecture, Taubes discussed Schmitt’s relationship to the Third Reich and a series of anecdotes about Taubes’ encounters with Schmitt’s work, beginning with his student years in Zurich. Muller is quite severe with the content of this lecture, showing several inconsistencies, mistakes, and wild claims.

To a large extent, Taubes’ posthumous fame hangs on the lectures on Paul that he presented shortly before his death. Muller details the process that led to the preparation of the lectures, starting with a lecture in 1986 at a Lutheran research center in Heidelberg on the experience of time, a seminar in Salzburg, and an interview published in a collective published by Suhrkamp. In this intervention, Taubes defended the interpretation that what marked the experience of time of the West is neither time as eternal nor the recurrency of time but an experience of urgency. From Paul, Taubes takes not the theological substance of his teachings but Paul’s emotional stance towards the world. It is the idea that the Kingdom of God is nearby. A few months later, Taubes was invited again to lecture at the Lutheran center. But by the time he had to give his seminar, his health had declined further. He prepared his lectures with the help of Aleida Assmann. She also arranged for the lectures to be taped and transcribed. Besides the framework, Muller provides a general description of the contents and a summary of Taubes’ lectures (488-494). Muller characterizes the lectures as follows: “Taubes had been thinking about Paul since at least the time of his father’s 1940 sermon, which prefigured some of Taubes’s own themes, and he poured into his Heidelberg lectures nuggets of learning and speculation gathered over a lifetime. It was this range of reference that made the lectures an intellectual feast to some but a chore to others. Taubes developed his themes in good part through stories about the figures with whom he had discussed Paul over the course of his life… All of which added an air of exoticism and cosmopolitanism to the presentation. It made for an intellectually sparkling brew” (494).

A final chapter recounts the story of how Jacob Taubes’ legacy was preserved and multiplied in the years after his demise. Muller starts with the obituaries by Aleida and Jan Assmann, which characterized him as a Jewish philosopher, an “Arch Jew, and Primordial-Christian.” In the same newspaper, a second obituary was published by Peter Gäng, Taubes’ last doctoral student, who wrote about the difficulty of classifying Taubes from a political point of view. Muller notes other obituaries, but in his view, the most important one was by Taubes’ old friend Armin Mohler. Mohler, who was well acquainted with Taubes’ life story, mentioned it in his article Susan Taubes’ Divorcing. In Muller’s view, the reference to Divorcing set off a chain reaction that would contribute to the posthumous reputation of both Susan and Jacob (499). That means, again, that it was not what Taubes taught, thought, or wrote that made his posterity but a series of unforeseeable events. With the demise of “really existing socialism,” left-wing intellectuals, such as Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, and Slavoj Žižek, turned to Taubes’ interpretation of Paul as a model for a post-Marxists theory of revolution. Even if Badiou does not mention Taubes directly, the references in his book clearly align with Taubes’ position. Only in one issue did Badiou diverge from Taubes. While Taubes always emphasizes Paul’s Jewish background, Badiou adopts a neo-Marcionite position, claiming that Paul broke completely with the religion of the Hebrew bible (509-10). Agamben’s book on Paul was published two years later, and it was dedicated to Taubes (510-511). Finally, Žižek does not directly quote Taubes but refers to him implicitly raising the issue of Paul in several of his books (511-12). And around this idea, a cottage industry of translations (515-6) and interpretations developed, first in Europe and later in the USA. Muller explains the success of ideas taken from or inspired by Taubes as a symptom of a double crisis. On the one hand, a crisis in the appeal of the Christian faith in large parts of Western Europe, while at the same time, there is a crisis of confidence among the radical and left-wing intelligentsia (512). Muller’s account ignores other reasons for a renewed interest in the intersections between religion and politics, some older, such as liberation theology, and some newer, such as the rise of fundamentalism.

Undoubtedly this is an exceptional book, both by the quality and quantity of the research supporting it and by its lively style. It would be of interest not only for people interested in the life and works of Jacob Taubes but also for those interested in the intellectual life both in the USA and in Germany in the period between the end of WWII and the crumbling of the Berlin wall.

Jeffrey A. Bernstein, Jade Larissa Schiff (Eds.): Leo Strauss and Contemporary Thought

Leo Strauss and Contemporary Thought: Reading Strauss Outside the Lines Book Cover Leo Strauss and Contemporary Thought: Reading Strauss Outside the Lines
SUNY series in the Thought and Legacy of Leo Strauss
Jeffrey A. Bernstein, Jade Larissa Schiff (Eds.)
SUNY Press
2021
Paperback $33.95
359

Reviewed by: Marina Marren (University of Nevada, Reno)

Leo Strauss and Contemporary Thought: Reading Strauss Outside the Lines edited by Jeffrey A. Bernstein and Jade Larissa Schiff is a timely volume that contains nuanced, scholarly, and illuminating reflections on Leo Strauss and various figures in the history of contemporary thought. In this review, my goal is to offer summaries of the fourteen essays. I hope that this will be a clear guide for the reader interested in a deeper study of the Schiff and Bernstein volume.

1. “Liberalism and the Question: Strauss and Derrida on Politics and Philosophy” by Jade Larissa Schiff

Schiff’s essay opens the first section entitled the “Arts of Reading and Seeing.” Schiff observes that Strauss and Derrida diverge not only in terms of their political affinities, but also as far as their “conceptual vocabularies” (12) are concerned. Schiff writes that their differences notwithstanding, “the lack of conversation [between the two] is surprising” (12) not only because “Derrida was clearly aware of Strauss” (12), but also because both were developing hermeneutic methodologies, which are respectively, deconstruction for Derrida, and esotericism for Strauss. The critical difference, which Schiff articulates between these two methods is that for Strauss, the thinker’s genuine thoughts are “concealed,” but nonetheless, they can be gleaned from the esoteric reading of the text. For Derrida, the deconstructive movement of the text makes even the thinker subject to an unwilful repression. Thus, for Derrida, the text only beckons with an illusion of holistic comprehensibility, but in fact, the truth remains an ever-receding horizon (14-15). On the basis of the differences in their philosophical methodology, Schiff establishes a more philosophically grounded understanding of Strauss’s and Derrida’s attitude toward political philosophy, which she summarizes at the outset of “Convergences: The Activity of Philosophy and the Trace of the Author” section (18-19). Schiff concludes with an invocation of Socratic self-knowledge, which she connects, on the one hand, to the Derridean insight that the world is also a text, and on the other, to Straussian view about the significance of the historical, cultural, and social context of the text. Thus, to read thoughtfully, means to seek out the knowledge not only of the author’s, but also of our own historical situatedness and “political commitments” (22). Thereby, we allow the text to call “into question what we think we know” (22).

2. “Purloined Letters—Lacan avec Strauss” by Matthew J. Sharpe.

Sharpe finds it perplexing that given both Lacan’s and Strauss’s interest in surreptitious writing, there are no sustained attempts to put these thinkers into a dialogue. Sharpe establishes an indirect affinity between Lacan’s psychoanalytic method and Strauss’s esotericism by drawing on Freud’s model of the unconscious. For Freud, the general work of the “unconscious consists of wishes and beliefs that have been repressed as by a political ‘censor,’ since they oppose the ego’s conscious self-image” (31). Likewise, for Strauss, “esoteric techniques” allow “great writers … to avoid [political] … censorship, and to indicate their true beliefs to careful readers able to read between the lines” (31). Thus, as in mental life we experience repression, so also the esoteric writer suppresses and hides the messages between the lines in order not to fall prey to political persecution. Another affinity that Sharpe finds between Freud, Lacan, and Strauss is their interest in espying causal and intentional order even in those things that appear to be governed by chance (32). Yet another point of confluence between Lacan and Strauss is their “concern for the law, and its relationship with human desire” (33). In terms of discontinuities, Strauss, as Sharpe sees it, prefers classical political thought and “contemplative or philosophical bios” (38) to the modern, post-Machiavellian politics and post-Nitzschean “metaphysical nihilism, ethical or political relativism, epistemological historicism, and proclamations of ‘the end of philosophy’” (38). On this presentation, human beings lack not only purpose but also autonomy, and the latter point is at least partially supported by Freudian insight into the commanding power of the unconscious. And yet, Sharpe’s final pronouncement on the differences between Lacan and Strauss ameliorates this claim. Quoting Lacan, Sharpe observes that the goal of psychoanalysis has to do with the “recreation of human meaning in an arid era of scientism” (43). This aim follows closely Strauss’s interest in a return to classical humanistic values.

3. “Seeing through Law: Phenomenological Thought in Soloveitchik and Strauss” by Jeffrey A. Bernstein

Bernstein is interested in seeing how both Soloveitchik, who “became one of the foremost philosopher-theologians of American Modern Orthodox Judaism” (52), and Leo Strauss rejuvenate the readers’ attitude to law. Soloveitchik was engaged with “‘halakhah’—the body of Jewish law as expressed in the Talmud” (53). Strauss’s “investigation, in Philosophy and Law, involves bracketing the prejudices of modern thought in order to recover a specifically premodern understanding of philosophy in its relation to religion and political life” (58-59). As Bernstein sees it, “both Soloveitchik and Strauss understand law as an optic through which certain fundamental phenomena come to light. In Soloveitchik’s case, these phenomena are the figures of homo religious and (eventually) Halakhic man; in Strauss’s case, these phenomena are religion and politics (as they come to constitute the theological political problem), and the relation between the philosopher and the city” (53). Halakhah, as the body of Jewish law, gives focus to Soloveitchik’s interest in finding an “objectifying structure for accessing subjective religious experience” (62). Strauss’s path indicates a possibility of an “actualized natural situation in which philosophers find themselves.” The latter is connected to religious concerns because it makes up the “perceptual horizon of revelation” (62). Soloveitchik’s and Strauss’s positions on the place and scope of religion constitute a difference between them. Whereas, for Soloveitchik the religious world encompasses the world of law; “for Strauss,” religion “would be (at best) a partial rendition of lived experience” (65). In other words, “[w]hereas Soloveitchik construes law ultimately as religious, Strauss articulates a conception in which the political and religious constitute the primal scene in which philosophy uneasily finds itself” (68). In the final analysis, Bernstein concludes that both Soloveitchik and Strauss see the power of law to structure and guide the lives of “nonphilosophers,” and to serve as a guide in the search for truth – for the understanding of “the world and their place in it” – for the philosophically-minded.

4. “Claude Lefort and Leo Strauss: On a Philosophical Discourse” by Isabel Rollandi

Rollandi constructs the conversation between Lefort and Strauss “around the figure and the work of Machiavelli” (75). Rollandi explains that Lefort thinks that for Strauss, “the proper perspective is achieved by the reader only when we discover the permanence of the problems confronted by human thought as well as Machiavelli’s concern for addressing them” (76). Rollandi shows that Lefort’s hermeneutic approach to Strauss applies to Strauss’s writings the kinds of tools that Strauss himself applies to Machiavelli (78). In a highly illuminating interpretive turn, Rollandi shows that for Lefort, Strauss discovers the fact that Machiavelli falls prey to the same denaturalizing influence of Chrisitan religion that he sought to subvert by his philosophizing (80). The reason why Strauss arrives at this view, according to Lefort, is because Strauss, who sees himself as a perspicacious philosophical reader to whom Machiavelli’s hidden teachings become revealed, erases the “the difference between reading and writing” (84). In other words, Rollandi continues, “Strauss conceives of the author as a sovereign ruler of his discourse. And in the same vein, he conceives of the interpreter as one who can master that discourse. By doing so, according to Lefort, Strauss cannot conceive of the reach of Machiavelli’s interrogation of the political.” (84) The reason why this is the case, as Rollandi shows, is because there is genuine novelty in Machiavelli’s political thought and in the political itself. The illusion of complete mastery on the part of the reader and the author prohibits Strauss from an encounter with the truly new.

5. “A Civil Encounter: Leo Strauss and Charles Taylor on Religious Pluralism” by Jessica L. Radin

At the beginning of her essay entitled, “A Civil Encounter: Leo Strauss and Charles Taylor on Religious Pluralism,” Radin focuses on Strauss’s and Taylor’s views of religion. Taylor, according to Radin, questions the possibility of the construction of the common moral core in the world where all belief in the transcendent is absent (112). Strauss sees in religious belief a salve from “social and communal homogeneity (descent into mass culture),” but Strauss is also apprehensive of the fact that religious communities “end up rendering all other groups outliers or outsiders” (112). Moreover, on Strauss’s view, there is an inherent tension between a political and a religious community. This view, as Radin presents it, leads Strauss to posit that “genuine political equality among religions might be impossible” (114). Taylor, on the other hand, is interested in “figuring out how actual political and social institutions can balance a commitment to freedom of religion with the need for adherents of all religions to interact nonviolently and on equal footing before the state” (114). Strauss and Taylor agree about the importance of cultivating virtue (118). However, for Strauss, it is highly questionable whether there is such a thing as a genuine education en masse. For Taylor one irreplaceable virtue is “tolerance … without which it is impossible to live peacefully in a pluralistic society” (124). Likewise, “Strauss is a defender of pluralism and of difference not only because of the positive effect such a culture has for both Jews and philosophers, but because he held that homogeneity and conformity lead to the creation of a ‘mass culture,’ which is then particularly vulnerable to the linked illnesses of mass culture, political indifference, and messianic expectations” (122). The danger of mass culture, as Radin explains, is not only in its susceptibility to gruesome political injustice and violence (122), but also in the vulnerability of a homogenized population to being swindled manipulated (122-23).

6. “Care of the Self and the Invention of Legitimate Government: Foucault and Strauss on Platonic Political Philosophy” by Miguel Vatter

The focal point of Vater’s examination is the “opposition between Platonic political philosophy and democratic political life” (135). As Vatter claims, the way in which both Strauss and Foucault understand the position of the philosopher in the polis is paradoxical; because for both the philosophical person is – at once – antipolitical, but also is engaged in politics by virtue of leading a philosophical life. For Vatter, “philosophical politics is “anti-political” in two senses: … for … the many who are subject to it, philosophical politics is experienced as “government” and not as a political life that engages the best part of their lives” (136). Furthermore, Vatter posits that “[f]or those … few … who subject others to their government, philosophical politics is ‘anti-political’ either because it gives rise to a doctrine of being that is no longer ‘relative’ to humanity (Strauss) or because it gives rise to a doctrine of self or psychology that is radically unencumbered by the social relation to others (Foucault)” (136). Both for Strauss and Foucault, there is a certain understanding of the self that allow a thoughtful individual to extricate herself from a thoroughgoing immersion in the communal life with the many. Vatter’s “general thesis is that both Strauss and Foucault see in Platonic political philosophy the birth of a governmental (as opposed to political) discourse” (136). “Governmentality,” Vatter goes on to explain, “refers to the “technology of self” that produces a certain ethos or self-conduct, such that this self is then enabled to conduct or govern others, in the sense of leading them. But whereas for Foucault the Platonic conception of governmentality is centered on ethical autonomy, for Strauss it is centered on ontology” (137). In conclusion, Vatter sees a slight, but important divergence between Strauss and Foucault on the meaning of philosophical anti-political politics. For Strauss, “philosophers could not desire to rule in first [sic.] person because their main activity was that of questioning, or illuminating the (unanswerable) basic problems” (149). However, for Foucault, the self-searches of the philosopher grant her a privileged position of becoming a leader of others by first being genuinely a seeker of self-knowledge (149). This moment of philosophical self-articulation is also something that Vatter identifies with self-rule, which he sees as a prerequisite for an informed and good rule of others (148).

7. “A Fruitful Disagreement: The Philosophical Encounter between George P. Grant and Leo Strauss” by Waller R. Newell

Newell largely uses Straussian influences on Grant to interpret Grant’s philosophical program. Newell opens his piece by indicating that Grant’s study of Strauss tempered his faith in historical progress and informed his return to the ancient roots of political thinking. However, whereas “Strauss always maintained a sharp divergence between classical philosophy and revelation, Grant was a Christian Platonist who believed the two were not irreconcilable” (161). Newell develops this difference by juxtaposing Kojève’s engagement with Hegel to Grant’s engagement with Strauss. Importantly, “Kojève interprets Hegel as an ‘atheistic’ thinker” (163) because the latter further develops the project of secularized social equality; the project that was spearheaded by Hobbes and Spinoza. Thus, Kojève is calling for a “Universal Homogeneous State [UHS]” (161). However, and “paradoxically,” as Newell points out, “the satisfaction we achieve at the end of history” in UHS “is tantamount to the withering away of our most admirable or at least our most distinctive human traits” (165). “For Strauss,” as Newell continues, “and Grant appears to agree with him [i.e., with Strauss]—according to the classics, universal happiness is not possible” (165). Newell underscores that “[i]n Grant’s view, however, any argument for the superiority of classical political philosophy must come to terms with the challenge of revelation, a deeper source of the claim that compassion is more important than thought’” (167). Although universal happiness may not be possible for all, the goal is to ameliorate suffering of the greatest number. However, according to Newell, Grant holds that the equalizing power of the Christian faith that was promulgated as “secular liberalism” (181) is a double-edged sword. This is so because “the will to autonomy breaks loose from [its] … old content [and] … wants to entirely remake nature and the world in pursuit of the abstract, empty, endless pursuit of freedom” (181). Thus, for Grant, unlike for Strauss, it is necessary, but insufficient to look back to ancient origins of justice and divinity, because the modern project along with its secularizing and technologizing influence has reshaped human nature (184). In order to capture the meaning of this reshaping, for Grant, we must carry out a deep reflection not only on modernity and the classical world, but also on the meaning of religion (185).

8. “Strauss and Blumenberg: On the Caves of the Moderns” by Danilo Manca

Manca weaves together Strauss’s and Blumenberg’s accounts of the image of the cave from Plato’s Republic. Manco admits that “there is no proof of a direct influence of Strauss on Blumenberg” (187). There is also an apparent divergence between Strauss and Blumenberg on the question of the cave image. As Manca writes, Strauss identifies the Cave with a certain state of nature (187). Unlike Strauss, Blumenberg does not think that we can discern an “original horizon out of which history would have dangerously brought mankind” (187). Strauss sees modernity as being a cave within a cave. Our perspective is displaced, and we first have to find a way out of this historically, politically, and socially constructed displacement. Strauss’s ultimate position, according to Manca, is that we must find the truth by ascending from the cave. However, this is not Blumenberg’s view. The latter “is more interested in exploring the way in which the caves contribute to the acquisition of knowledge. Alluding to the prehistoric cave paintings, Blumenberg states that it was by passing through the cave that the human being became a ‘dreaming animal’” (190). In this connection, Manca introduces Blumenberg’s work on metaphor and the power of myth, which already in Plato, was constitutive of philosophical thought (190). This power continues to inform our thinking and our lives with newfound and often re-figured meanings. In conclusion, Manca states that “Strauss’s main goal is the return to the investigation of the essence of things. Therefore, historiographical investigation can be taken to be only an auxiliary, albeit integral, part of philosophical inquiry. On the contrary, for Blumenberg, historiographical research embraces the entire field of philosophical investigation insofar as it is focused on the study of absolute metaphors” (198-99). For Strauss, historical situatedness of philosophical ideas is one of the tools of investigation into the truth of the matter; for Blumenberg it lays out the entirety of the field of truth.

9. “Writing the Querelle des Anciens et Modernes: Leo Strauss and Ferdinand Tönnies on Hobbes and the Sociology of Philosophy” by Peter Gostmann

Gostmann notes that Tönnies influenced Strauss’s development and that, specifically, Strauss sought support from Tönnies when trying to publish “his essay on Hobbes’s Criticism of religion.” Gostmann concludes that “[u]nlike Strauss, Tönnies is convinced that there has never been a quarrel of the ancients and the moderns. There was, much earlier, a conflict between Old Rome and the new peoples of Europe: established groups versus wanderers, not aristocrats versus plebeians. The measure of the best possible regime Tönnies is concerned with, that is, the aim of his sociology of philosophy, is therefore a ‘natural’ synthesis between institutions suitable for continuity and the mobile elements of society” (230). Whereas, Strauss seeks to recover the ancient mode of philosophizing, on Tönnies’s reading, Hobbes – the quintessential modern thinker (217) – seeks to depart from the “contemplative” model of philosophy (213). Reflecting on this departure, Gostmann writes, “Hobbes’ pioneering act is the translation of Galilean mathematico-mechanical philosophy into a ‘moral and political’ science, based on the theory of a ‘dynamic’ mechanism of optic perception” (213). In his reading of Hobbes, Strauss concludes that despite Hobbes’ ostensible atheism, it is impossible to have a serious grasp of Hobbes’ thinking, unless one espies a certain theological bent in Hobbes. Gostmann discusses a highly interesting set of conclusions that Strauss draws from his study of Hobbes in Natural Right and History (223). For Strauss, Hobbesian thought eventuates in several substitutions of classical for modern priorities. 1) The value and virtue of contemplative life is substituted with industrious life and the rewards it allegedly brings. 2) Based on the first substitution, the governmental authority has little interest in wisdom or contemplation, and instead seeks efficiency in government. This results in doctrinal and partisan politics. Strauss concludes that these changes in social and political values necessitate a particular class of individuals responsible for “shaping public opinion” (223). The latter process, for it to be effective, must find support in the government of state. Thus, the said opinion-shapers, in turn, must see to it that in their work they uphold the interests of their government (223). As Gostmann sees it, for Strauss, Hobbes “has no profound idea of political philosophy,” which is why Hobbes produces a “doctrine that does not defend the freedom of philosophizing, but enables either anti-liberal doctrinism or liberalism without liberality” (229).

10. “Leo Strauss and Jürgen Habermas: The Question for Reason in Twentieth-Century Lifeworlds,” by Rodrigo Chacón

Chacón observes that despite the various divergences in Strauss’s and Habermas’s work there is still one definitive point of contact, i.e., the thinkers’ focus on reason (230). As far as the critique of reason is concerned, “critical thought is meant to be anti-dogmatic, yet it seems to discredit, once and for all, the traditionally philosophic use of reason” (240). This is where Strauss’s interest in “[s]ubverting the law of critique” comes in (241). Chacón writes that “Strauss argues against the view that freedom of speech and thought presupposes the public use of reason” (241). In fact, public opinion is not freely shaped by the individuals who make up that public, but rather, by a few convincing individuals who offer several pre-formulated views on any given matter (242). Nevertheless, because Strauss does not tie the critique of modes of thought to modes of production or social relations, he does not think that there is a “need to revolutionize the way we interact in order to change the way we think” (244). The one, perhaps unresolvable, “problem Strauss discovered … is the ‘theological-political problem.’ … Strauss provides no final answer to the question of whether we can acquire knowledge of the good or must rely on divine revelation to guide our lives. The result is a kind of impasse, or a productive tension, where each side in the conflict between reason and revelation challenges its opponent to articulate its position with ever greater clarity” (246). However, for Strauss, the task of philosophy is, emphatically, the quest for liberation from “religious authority” (246). In comparison to Strauss, “Habermas’s late work critique becomes post-secular. It is now aware that modernity cannot, after all, generate normativity solely on its own” (247). Thus, Strauss’s and Habermas’s thinking finds affinity in articulating this tension between religious or revealed law and discoveries about values and norms that non-religious thought may yield.

11. “Heidegger’s Challenge to the Renaissance of Socratic Political Rationalism” by Alexander S. Duff

Duff examines Strauss’s thought as “[o]ne inviting approach to the difference between Heidegger

and the Socratism,” which Strauss carries out “by looking at the following question: How does human openness relate to the fact of the articulation of the world or the whole” (261)? The reason why it is fruitful to pursue the encounter between Socrates and Heidegger from this point of view is because “Heidegger rejects or, more properly speaking, attempts to overcome the Socratic way of being. In this sense, his thought—from its earliest mature expressions to its fullest adumbration—is counter-Socratic” (260). Not only does Heidegger, according to Duff’s reading of Strauss, misconstrues the meaning of Socratic questioning, but also Heidegger misses the comic dimension of Socratic thought; thus cauterizing access to holistic Socratic philosophizing. On Duff’s presentation, Heidegger offers the following objection: “[w]e cannot understand ourselves when we take our bearings from the what is it question because, while the beings about which we are asking come into existence and pass out of existence as we do, we are aware of and concerned with our own perishing from, as it were, a ‘first-person’ perspective” (262). The orientation that attempts to align the things out there with the individuality of the inquirer has to be refigured such that the horizon of beings in their Being becomes accessible to the questioner. In turn, this questioner is placed within or along the horizon of Being. The latter, i.e., the existential horizon, is atelic, but only emerges “from deeper currents of temporality and care” (268). Duff then engages with Heidegger’s interest in the withdrawal or concealment of Being and the fruitfulness of thinking about nihilism in the context of reckoning with this withdrawal. In the face of nihilism, Duff says that “Strauss praises comedy for its attention to and preservation of the surface, opinion and convention. … Comedy punctures convention by lampooning it, but also shows the need for its preservation. Comedy forswears tragic depths not out of ignorance, but for the sake of presenting a more complete picture of the whole. Comedy is thus superior to tragedy; it transcends and presupposes tragedy” (272-73). Thus, by omitting Socratic humor, ridicule, irony, and comedy – both in Socrates’ utterances and in his deeds – Heidegger misses a critically important dimension of Socratic questioning and philosophizing.

12. “The Wheel of History: Nihilism as Moral Protest and Deconstruction of the Present in Leo Strauss and Albert Camus” by Ingrid L. Anderson

Anderson writes that Strauss’s “1941 lecture on German nihilism” shows a set of concerns that are similar to Camus’s. Both appeared to be discontented with the spread of liberal democracy, and both called for a “rediscovery of and renewed adherence to some semblance of absolute universal values, that are not created by the forces of history but identified in history as enduring and therefore fundamental” (282). Whereas Camus was a staunch critic of communism (284), “Strauss’s work on German nihilism indicates that his greatest worry was the advent of National Socialism. But he also wanted to expose what he felt were the ‘shaky foundations’ of the goals of liberalism, including its steadfast belief in the inevitability of linear progress” (286). Strauss saw German nihilism as particularly “dangerous because it is unable to succinctly identify what it wants to build in place of the present world that it aims to destroy” (288). However, on the point of Nietzschean nihilism, Strauss agrees with Camus who does not take nihilism to be a sign of a will to nothingness, but rather a will to destroy the sham values of the day (289). Anderson concludes that “[b]oth Strauss and Camus reject teleological understandings of history that posit a final cause or destination for human societies” (291). This position, if it is not nihilistic, is at least atelic, and it supports a Nietzschean revaluation of values.

13. “Who’s Laughing? Leo Strauss on Comedy and Mockery” by Menachem Feuer

Feuer gives himself a task to re-examine the place of comedy in Strauss’s work, and its significance for Strauss’s philosophical ideas. To that end, Feuer identifies “three important moments in Strauss’s reflections on comedy and humor: (1) his discussion of Aristophanes and Socrates; (2) his investigation of Enlightenment mockery and the arguments of the ancients; (3) his analysis of Nietzsche’s notion of greatness (and its relationship to mockery) and the Jewish tradition of extreme humility (and its relationship to comedy)” (297). On Feuer’s assessment, Strauss’s view of comedy allows him to think about it as both that which constitutes a relational bonding within a community and that which allows to disrupt the social and cultural horizons (296). The novelty of the worldview that comedy reveals when contrasted with tragedy has to do with the position of the comedian toward the law (political, religious, etc.). More specifically, as Feuer claims, Strauss’s key insight into the power of comedic boasting and ridicule has to do with the fact that, whereas in tragedy a hubristic transgression is punished (thus preserving divine justice), in comedy hubristic boasting is subject to comedic ridicule and to audience’s laughter. More importantly, and “here is Strauss’s esoteric twist: The real ‘boaster par excellence’ … is the comic poet himself, who after all is responsible especially for those successful transgressions of sacred laws that he celebrates in his plays” (305). On the subject of Enlightenment philosophy and the Athens/Jerusalem question, Feuer concludes that, as far as Strauss is concerned, the spirit of self-mockery, self-undermining, and of life-affirming humility is waning, but must be restored to Jewish thought. Feuer concludes his analysis by stating that, for Strauss, the “key question for Athens and Jerusalem is that of the right way of life.” (318) The answer to the question: “What kind of life is [this]?” is “that comedy and philosophy go hand in hand and that humility can, in fact, pass over from the religious sphere into the philosophical sphere. Taking this to heart, one can read Socrates as a humble comic figure who—between Aristophanes and Plato—can figure the tension between the city (community)/ poet and the philosopher. This tension,” Feuer argues, “can also be generalized and applied to the Jewish community, but in terms of prophecy and comedy” (318).

14. “Leo Strauss and Walter Benjamin: Thinking ‘in a Moment of Danger’” by Philipp von Wussow

Wussow puts Strauss and Benjamin in conversation by examining their common interest in Carl Schmitt. Looking at the three authors together allows Wussow to clarify the way in which modern religion and culture relate to the “concept of the political” (324). Wussow delineates “a number of theoretical similarities and differences. We may distinguish a few common themes: (1) the stance toward tradition and modernity and the critique of history as progress; (2) the reading of Carl Schmitt; the relationship between aesthetics and politics, and the notion of the political; (3) the stance toward theological and political concepts; namely, the concepts of messianism and redemption (to which Strauss was, unlike virtually all other German-Jewish thinkers, wholly indifferent), law (which was important for both), and revelation (which is central for Strauss, while it gradually vanishes in Benjamin’s writings); (4) a rare methodological emphasis on reading, and a strong sense for esoteric meanings hidden beneath the surface of a text that was fueled by a deep suspicion of the grand schemes of “theory”; and (5) their relationships to the two major schools of German academic philosophy. Both had a complicated relationship to neo-Kantianism and phenomenology: whereas Benjamin’s thought is closer to neo-Kantianism, Strauss is closer to phenomenology” (327-28). In so far as the relationship between politics and aesthetics is concerned, for Benjamin, an unmistakable “anesthetization of politics under fascism” takes place, on the one hand; and on the other, under communism, art becomes politicized (329). However, both ideologies are “murderous and indefensible” in the final analysis (329). Strauss’s solution to this merging of art and politics is based on his reading of Schmitt, and it proposes a return to the pre-cultural domain of law. Furthermore, both Strauss and Benjamin see great value in engaging with classical thought for the sake of gaining a deeper understanding of our times. However, this study of the tradition itself had to be repositioned. On this point, Wussow writes that “[t]radition could no longer be understood in a traditional way; in this respect Strauss and Benjamin were in perfect agreement” (335). Wussow concludes his investigation by saying that “[t]he two figures of interwar German-Jewish thought represent two different ways of conceptualizing the dialectics of modernity and premodernity; two models of viewing society and culture from outside; and two different foundations for the understanding of the political in its relation to culture” (338).