Rumors surrounding the Hebraic-American classical philosopher Leo Strauss’ supposed influence on leading neoconservative politicians and commentators make reconsidering Leo Strauss’ thought and legacy a philosophical task of the first political importance today. A host of articles have appeared by students and (more recently) books by Stephen Smith (2006), Heinrich Meier (2006) and Catherine and Michael Zuckert (2006). This essay is proffered as a critical contribution, by a non-Straussian student, to this literature. Its methodology and justification is to return to and reconsider Strauss’ earliest works, on the ‘political theology’ of Benedict de Spinoza. The paper argues two theses. The first is that the popular depiction of Strauss as an esoteric Nietzschean hiding behind a ‘noble’ classical or theological veneer importantly misses the mark. The second is that Strauss’ early work shows his proximity, via Jacobi, to the Heideggerian disclosure of the groundless grounds of philosophical reason, given which one must extra-rationally choose reason over faith. One striking implication of this argument, in the contemporary political climate, is to underscore the unlikely convergence between the philosophical sources of neoconservative and the ‘post-structuralist’ thought associated with much of the intellectual left in France and the Anglophone world. Yet in contrast to the widespread image of Strauss, I argue that the mature Strauss’ continuing commitment to this decisionistic framework is in fact most clear is his ‘exoteric,’ public statements on religion – i.e. it is not the ‘esoteric’ purloined letter Strauss’ critics seek out. The reason for Strauss’ continuing public advocacy of the impossibility of reason’s disproving faith, I propose, highlights the primarily political (versus philosophical) nature of this turn: in Strauss’ conservative acceptance of the political necessity of religion for social order, framed in terms of a revised commitment to the ‘medieval’ (versus modern) enlightenment of Maimonides and Farabi.
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