I have been revisiting some old writing lately. Some of it should be confined to the dustbin… some of it deserves more consideration. These thoughts on Agamben & Strauss I’d say deserve more thought. They were the focus of an old conference paper I once gave, and then never did anything with. Writing and reading is purely for pleasure now, so I’m not sure what I will do next, but these thoughts have some kernel of usefulness in them, I believe.  With the publication of Strauss’s lectures, and helpful volumes such as the recent collection on Strauss’s 1930s work (“Reorientation”), obviously the literature would need to be addressed anew. I’ve long thought that Strauss needs to supplement the arguments that Agamben makes in Homo Sacer, especially given that Agamben mentions him by name. What follows is the beginning of such an attempt. 

“What is Security?” Two answers from Strauss & Agambem

Strauss’s “Notes on Carl Schmitt” have been translated and published alongside Schmitt’s treatise since 1996, while the appearance of Homo Sacer in English in 1998—a book that takes up the debate on emergency powers between Schmitt and Walter Benjamin—shows readers that Strauss’s philosophy is one of the touchstones from which Agamben’s critique takes its bearings.  Agamben, while introducing his understanding of the distinction between zoe and bios says the following:  “The idea of an inner solidarity between democracy and totalitarianism…is obviously not (like Leo Strauss’s thesis concerning the secret convergence of the final goals of liberalism and communism) a historiographical claim, which would authorize the liquidation and leveling of the enormous differences that characterize their histories and rivalry” (Agamben 1998, 10).  That is, Strauss’s interpretation of the history of political philosophy in Agamben’s presentation is unable to “thematically interrogate the link between bare life and politics” and cannot “bring the political out of its concealment and, at the same time, return thought to its practical calling” (Agamben 1998, 4-5).  Agamben turns to Strauss again at the very conclusion of the work:

Every attempt to rethink the political space of the West must begin with the clear awareness that we no longer know anything of the classical distinction between zōe and bios, between private life and political existence, between man as a simple living being at home in the house and man’s political existence in the city.  This is why the restoration of classical political categories proposed by Leo Strauss and, in a different sense, by Hannah Arendt can have only a critical sense.  There is no return from the camps to classical politics. (1998, 187)

Agamben has picked a fine interlocutor, though it is unclear how aware Agamben is of this fact, as Strauss demonstrates a surprising ability to respond to Agamben’s challenges.[1]  Agamben mentions Strauss on other time in Homo Sacer, during his discussion of the distinction between physis [nature] and nomos [law/custom/convention].[2]  There, Agamben identifies the “classical natural right” teaching—by way of Strauss—to be the use of the “law of nature” to undermine the “Sophistic opposition” between nature and nomos (1998, 35).[3]

Read More


From paragraph #171 of Natural Right & History, in the discussion of the mutability and immutability of natural right:

The Thomistic interpretation is connected with the view that there is a habitus of practical principles, a habitus which he call “conscience” or, more precisely, synderesis.  The very terms show that this view is alien to Aristotle; it is of Patristic origin.

“It is of Patristic origin” or perhaps, “it is of the Patristic, Origen”.  See his homilies on Ezekiel.  One cannot emphasize this point enough: the moral conscience is apparently not a Greek invention.  Is this invention the crisis of classic natural right? Is this what allows Thomas to so easily turn natural right into natural law? What about the comparison between the Nichomachean Ethics 1134b and Rhetoric 1.13.2?  To the Kuzari?  But first:

The doctrine of synderesis or of the conscience explains why natural law can always be duly promulgated to all men and hence be universally obligatory.  It is reasonable to assume these profound changes were due to the influence of belief in biblical revelation.  If this assumption should prove to be correct, one would be forced to wonder, however, whether the natural law as Thomas Aquinas understands it is natural law strictly speaking, i.e., a law knowable to the unassisted human mindto the human mind which is not illumined by divine revelation.  (p.163, emphasis not in original)

I’ll note only two circumstantial coincidences.  The Platonic chariot appears in a dialogue that occurs outside of the city walls.  Maimonides notes that the Account of the Chariot (III 6) implies an understanding of its audience as being outside the city: comparing two mean, one from a settle population and another from desert nomads, “the former knew that city people know in what state the ruler rides, [Isaiah] did not describe that state, but said only: I saw the ruler…whereas the people of Exile required these details [from Ezekiel].”  The biblical Chariot, like the Platonic one, is outside the city.  The biblical Chariot is a picture that is only possible outside of the Second Table, outside of the “minimum requirements for society” (NRH 158). The second circumstance: I usually write in this space in the dead of night, seeking the morning sun; at this moment, I am writing in the middle of the afternoon awaiting the evening dusk.

p.s. Origen postulates a parallel between Ezekiel and Christ on the basis of Luke 3:23, Matthew 3:13, and Luke 3:21. See the Scheck translation, p.32-3.

p.p.s. There are many, many, benefits to the current fashionable love for habitus, doxa, and field in my academic community. But much, much more resides on the surface of these concepts than their first impression admits. And the first impression is already powerful.

This space has not been forgotten. Writing, and writing, had merely kept it silent, and slightly ignored.

After this year’s ISA, and an excellent conversation with my discussant, I am more convinced than ever of my inclination that a confrontation with Heidegger’s work is necessary. Especially his work on attunement, in Being and Time. In addition to his essays on Metaphysics and his book on Plato’s Parmenides. Also, it’s clear that affect has become a term of abuse due to a severe lack of attention to the centrality and finality of affect in Heidegger’s thought. But does he think of Jerusalem? Does he regard nomos? And so on. Now for a break. Welcome back Dorian Gray!

I’ve gone through Rabbi Weber’s thesis, and collected the remarks that relate to the two days he spent with Strauss in June of 1973.  Before I get to a quote, let me quickly outline why I’ve been so engrossed with this +35 year old dissertation that was never published as a book.

1) Weber hypothesizes that Strauss’s thought on Maimonides evolved, and as his understanding of Maimonides evolved so did his understanding of political philosophy generally.  Weber also reports that Strauss himself confirms this evolution in his understanding of Maimonides, with a “glimmer” first revealing itself in 1938, (though possibly as early as 1931, as Weber suggests this is the first time Strauss repeats the famous quote from Averroes).

2) Weber’s thesis focuses on the contest between “Judaism and Philosophy” rather than “Jerusalem and Athens”.  And he also views this conflict in the light of the theologico-political problem.  The primacy of the “theologico-political problem” to Strauss’s work wasn’t always as clear to his English readers as it was to his German ones.  Weber recognizes this, having read and compared the German preface to Political Philosophy of Hobbes in the German edition of 1964.

3)Weber provides (I believe) the first English translation of the introduction to Philosophie und Gesetz.  He takes as his guide for translating Strauss, Leo Strauss himself (referring to the Autobiographical preface to the Spinoza book).  I’ll provide two examples of the difference.  Adler translates, “But if one undertakes a confrontation of this kind seriously, and thus in the freedom of the question which of the two opposed rationalisms is the true rationalism, then medieval rationalism, whose “classic” for us is Maimonides, changes in the course of the investigation from a mere means of discerning more sharply the specific character of modern rationalism into the standard measured against which the latter proves to be only a semblance of rationalism” (P&L 21-2).  Compare Weber’s translation of the same sentence:  “If such a confrontation is undertaken in earnest — that is, with the question open as to which of the two opposing rationalisms is the true rationalism — then the following result ensues:  medieval rationalism — whose classic exponent for us is Maimonides — initially taken as merely an instrument for keener cognition of the distinctiveness of modern rationalism, becomes during the course of the investigation the standard, measured by which modern rationalism reveals itself to be a “pseudo-rationalism”.  Weber says he follows Strauss’s use of “pseudo-philosophy” from Persecution in order to translate “pseudo-rationalism”.  Weber provides a note referencing Strauss’s discussion of the proper “instrument” for use in sacrifices in the Averroes’ section, suggesting he has that argument in mind here.  Adler’s “mere means” obscures this (if Weber’s interpretation is right, of course).

Weber reports a comment from Strauss along the following lines: “whereas one may argue for a philosophicus Christi, the case for ‘Mosaic Philosophy’ is hardly tenable.”

I like thinking about this remark on ‘Mosaic philosophy’ very much.  Given the concomitant nature of philosophy and tyranny, consider the negative formulation of that statement.  One may argue for a tyrannicus Christi, the case for Mosaic tyranny is hardly tenable.  But if tyranny is a danger coeval with political life, the “Bible” and the laws of Moses are not political life.  But this seems like it cannot be true, especially if the Torah is The Law.  But then Strauss “heartily agrees” with a comment about the family and philosophy being inversely related.  This is another way of framing his statement from “Accounts” that a philosopher’s “first education he would usually get from his father and mother, and other relatives, that is to say, from the city” (JPCM 466).  Now this makes sense: Torah, The Law, Family, The City, are essentially equivocal.  Wait: my train of thought here assumes that politics is natural, in the same way that a family is natural.  We can abstract Law and Family from Politics, that is they can exist apart from Politics (pace Aristotle [cf.Cain/Able with Shepherds and Agriculturists]).  Is this a way to begin to “enucleate” Biblical wisdom?  I believe I have run up against one of Strauss’s famous hurdles.  But this I hope demonstrates Weber’s point about the importance Strauss gives to “attentiveness”.  

In September 1975, Rabbi Stanley G. Weber defended a dissertation called “Leo Strauss on Jerusalem and Athens”, supervised by George Parkin Grant in the Department of Religious Studies.  The dissertation was meant to “enucleate the thought of Leo Strauss on the relation of Jerusalem and Athens” with a special interest in the relation between Judaism and Philosophy.  This is interesting for a whole host of reasons.  First, Political Philosophy has always had a home at McMaster, despite the never ending persecution to which it’s been subjected by the last 20+ years of administrations.  Second, 1975 is incredibly early to be writing a dissertation on Strauss’s thought.*  Really, Grant is one of the few (only?) people who in 1975 could have supervised such a thesis, being a reviewer of Strauss’s On Tyranny and the Strauss-Kojeve debate.  Grant was the first to bring attention the the omission of the last paragraph from the French edition in the English “Restatement”.  Confer footnote 37 in Grant’s famous Lament for a Nation, where he draws on Strauss to make sense of the Canadian modern predicament.  That whole paragraph is clearly a reflection on Strauss’s famous line, “Tyranny is a danger coeval with political life” and Kojeve’s response to it in view of the “world state”.  In Lament (1965) Grant points us to What is Political Philosophy? and The City and Man.  In his 1966 Appendix to Philosophy and the Mass Age, Grant points us again to WIPP but now substitutes CM for Thoughts on Machiavelli.

Returning to Rabbi Weber, it appears only Professor Kenneth Green has come across his thesis, granting it a citation in Jew and Philosopher, but I can find it only in the citations not in the text.  Rabbi Weber was mentioned in the Ottawa Citizen on May 27, 1961 [link].  This is a stunning thesis, which deserves much more publicity than it’s received.  Especially interesting is that Rabbi Weber appears to have met Strauss, listing his “two days with Strauss” among the abbreviated works.  More to come…

*Richard Zinman, I believe, also wrote a dissertation on Strauss.  But this was awarded (according to his CV on the Olin Center page) in 1976.