‘In the Court of a Great King’: Some Remarks on Leo Strauss’ Introduction to the Guide for the Perplexed
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- Sharpe, M.J. SOPHIA (2011) 50: 141. doi:10.1007/s11841-010-0200-x
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This essay, which will be divided between two SOPHIA editions, proposes to test the consensus in Maimonidean scholarship on the alleged intellectualism of Leo Strauss’ Maimonides by making a close interpretive study of Strauss’ 1963 essay ‘How to Begin to Study the Guide for the Perplexed’. While the importance of this essay, which is Strauss’ last extended piece on the Guide, is established in Maimonidean scholarship, its recognised esotericism has been matched by a dearth of detailed studies of the piece. We aim in this essay to try to rectify this situation, by reading ‘How to Begin to Study’ as Strauss directs us to read esoteric texts in Persecution and the Art of Writing. As one control on our exegetical claims, we will close by situating our reading of ‘How to Begin to Study’ and Strauss’ positions there on philosophy, prophecy and the Torah alongside the claims of his earlier, much less esoteric, but also rarely studied: ‘Some Remarks on the Political Science of Maimonides and Farabi’. Because of the now widely recognised foundational importance of Maimonides in understanding Leo Strauss’ own lasting positions, this work will have wider importance in Strauss scholarship, and hopefully make a contribution to the continuing task of trying to understand Strauss’ important thoughts on Athens and Jerusalem, reason and revelation, the city and man.
KeywordsMaimonidesLeo StraussThe guide for the perpelexedEsotericismPhilosophyProphecy
At different points in history, certain key figures inevitably have determined the tone and substance of that discussion [viz., on how to interpret the Guide], to such an extent that new discussants must begin their reflections by agreeing or disagreeing with them. In recent times, such a key determining figure has been the late Professor Leo Strauss, who died in 1973. Strauss proposed a thesis about Maimonides’ meaning and intent in the Guide that is so powerful that, once it became commonly known by students of Maimonides’ thought, it was inevitable that no one could subsequently ignore it.1
Introduction: Animating Perplexities in Maimonidean Scholarship
The importance of Leo Strauss’ studies of the thought of Moses Maimonides is widely accepted in Maimonidean and Hebraic studies. Strauss’ culminating study on Maimonides and The Guide for the Perplexed was his 1963 Introduction to the Pines translation of the Guide, entitled: ‘How to Begin to Study the Guide for the Perplexed’.2 Marvin Fox describes this translation, and this essay, as ‘an event of major importance to students of medieval philosophy and Jewish thought. The translation and the Strauss essay have set a standard against which to measure all other translations and aids to the study of the Guide’.3 That said, the scholar can be amazed at the comparative dearth of secondary literature on Strauss’ ‘How to Begin to Study’, as against his earlier texts on Rambam. Even pieces of the competence of Michael Zank’s ‘Arousing Suspicion against a Prejudice: Leo Strauss and the Study of Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed’ or Joseph Buijs’ ‘The Philosophical Character of Maimonides’ Guide—A Critique of Strauss’ Interpretation’, despite their subtitles, focus almost wholly on Philosophy and Law and ‘The Literary Character of The Guide for the Perplexed’.4
One begins to understand the Guide once one sees that it is not a philosophic book—a book written by philosophers for philosophers—but a book written by a Jew for Jews. Its first premise is the old Jewish premise that being a Jew and being a philosopher are incompatible things.8
With the notable exception of Kenneth Hart Green, that is to say, what Green terms ‘the worst case’9—namely, the view that Strauss (and Strauss’ Maimonides) were ‘pure philosophers’ without belief in the God of Mosaic revelation or the commensurability of reason and revelation—is standardly accepted in Jewish scholarship concerning Strauss’ Maimonides today.10 Warren Harvey simply states the view in one line of ‘The Return of Maimonideanism’: ‘Strauss' answer (if we may reveal his esoteric teaching) is that he [Maimonides] was a citizen of Athens who wrote his Jewish books to maintain the “opinion” of a city in which he could not live’.11 Kellner likewise in ‘Strauss’ Maimonides vs. Maimonides’ Maimonides’—albeit a short study—builds his entire critique of Strauss there concerning Maimonides’ notions of science, the intellect, morality and the Law, on the assumption that ‘I realise that Strauss never made himself clear, but I trust that most of his readers will agree with my assessment [of Strauss’ views]’.12
This essay proposes to test this consensus, or rather to seek out what textual evidence there might be on these issues, by making a close interpretive study of Strauss’ 1963 essay ‘How to Begin to Study the Guide for the Perplexed.’ As what might be termed one control on our exegetical claims, we will close by situating our reading of ‘How to Begin to Study’ alongside the claims of his earlier, much less esoteric, but also rarely studied: ‘Some Remarks on the Political Science of Maimonides and Farabi’.13 Because of the now widely recognised, foundational importance of Maimonides in understanding Strauss’ own lasting positions,14 this work will have wider importance in Strauss scholarship, and hopefully make a contribution to the continuing task of trying to understand Strauss’ positions on Athens and Jerusalem, reason and revelation, the city and man.
On ‘How to Begin to Study the Guide for the Perplexed’
Our guiding contention in what follows is that we should try to read Strauss’ ‘How to Begin to Study The Guide for the Perplexed’ as he teaches us to read Maimonides. In doing so, we will additionally take as our guide Strauss’ wider hermeneutic remarks in Persecution and the Art of Writing,15 as well as citing, where appropriate, consistencies between our assertions and Strauss’ claims elsewhere. The founding justification for this hermeneutic approach is that Strauss’ essay, manifestly, has many of the characteristics that he alerts us to in reading Maimonides’ Guide as an esoteric work. These principally include the frequent raising of hints, allusions or partial explanations of a topic or feature of the Guide, with unclear or portentous explanations of the meaning of these interpolations: ‘it is one thing to observe these regularities, another to understand them’ (#27/15816; cf. #38/167). Strauss also draws readers’ attention to details or what he terms ‘varieties’ in the Guide (#19/154) in ways that, if they do not find direct parallel in Maimonides’ treatment of biblical texts, show the way Strauss has taken to his own heart Maimonides’ frequent instructions to Joseph and readers like him to read every word of the Guide closely. The ‘varieties’ Strauss singles out in ‘How to Begin to Study’ include: enumerations of the number of lexicographic or exegetical versus speculative or demonstrative chapters in parts of the Guide (#19/153; #44/173); the sequence of the biblical words examined in Guide Part I, chapters 1-70 (#14/149); noting the number, nature, and order of Hebrew verbs, nouns, verbal nouns, also adjectives, that Maimonides explains in the opening Part of the Guide (#27/158-159; #29/160); which words are omitted, in these chapters, which we might in context expect (#19/153; esp. #29/160); whether the words treated are given one or more Guide chapters each (#25/157-158); whether they precede or are placed within the first sentence of a Guide chapter, and whether or not they are preceded by an Arabic Article (#27/157); the frequency with which Maimonides cites biblical, Jewish but non- or post-biblical, Arabic and philosophic sources in different parts of the Guide (#39 end/168; #43/172); including the frequency and number of times Maimonides cites these sources using variants of the third person plural ‘they say’ as against the third person singular ‘he said’ (#42/171).
The presence of such lexicographic features in Strauss’ ‘How to Begin to Study the Guide for the Perplexed’, and the apparent disorder of the whole to which they contribute, make it judicious for the exegete to state clearly the interpretive hypotheses s/he is aiming to defend. Like Marvin Fox and others, we have no wish of replicating (or, given Maimonides’ esotericism, ‘triplicating’) Strauss’ esotericism, in beginning to understand his essays on the Guide.
We begin then by with the question of hidden structure.
The Literary Character of Strauss’ Guide, and Strauss’ Essay
Strauss opens ‘How to Begin to Study’ by offering his opinion on the hidden structure of the Guide for the Perplexed, based on ‘about 25 years of frequently interrupted but never abandoned study’ (#1/140).17 This hidden structuring Strauss relates to Maimonides’ observation of the injunction against publically teaching any more than the ‘chapter headings’ of the secrets or roots of the Law, and scattering even these (#6/142-318). While the Guide exoterically has three Books, Strauss’ later assessment of the Guide’s plan divides the work’s 178 chapters into two, not three, Parts: on ‘Views’, then ‘Actions’. The two parts of Strauss’ Guide encompass 7 hidden sections, with these in turn comprising some 37 subsections.19 All but the last section, ‘On Man’s Perfection and God’s Providence’, are divided into seven subsections. This structuring according to 7s, Strauss claims, is for a ‘general reason’ that he indicates but does not openly say20 (#44/172: see below). The central Straussian sections (III and IV21) encompass the chapters on prophecy (Guide II.32-48) and the Account of the Chariot (Guide III.1-7), which concerns God’s general governance of the world. Strauss had noted that the end of Guide III.7 announces that from here on, the Guide will consider matters relating to beings that come into being and pass away.22Guide III.8 and onwards hence become Strauss’ second Part (‘Actions’, sections VI and VII), which deal with the civic actions, as against the right or intellectual opinions enjoined by law, before the seventh section (of four chapters, two subsections), which concludes the Guide as a whole (#1/140-142).23
The importance of this structural division for what follows in Strauss’ essay is not fully explicit. As Fradkin has noted, ‘How to Begin to Study’ itself, having enumerated this plan, strangely seems to spend the majority of its space—31 of its 58 paragraphs (#20-51, pages 154-178)—on Strauss’ Guide section I alone.24 This first Strauss’ Guide section spans Book I, chapters 1-70 of Maimonides’ text concerning God’s Incorporeality and Unity,25 the majority of whose chapters involve exegesis of biblical terms that superficially suggest His corporality and non-unity. Strauss spends some 18 of these 31 paragraphs (#25-42, pages 157-172) of his essay on subsection I.2 [‘Terms designating place, change of place, the organs of human locution, etc.’ (Guide I.8-28)]. Finally, within these 18 paragraphs of the essay on Strauss’ Guide subsection I.2, paragraphs 30 through to 42 of ‘How to Begin to Study’ (pp. 161-171) seem to clearly constitute a digression on the question of intrabiblical and post-biblical ‘progress beyond the teaching of the Torah’—offered ‘to give the reader some hints for the better understanding of the second subsection’ (#43 start/172). This concern with the possibility of progress between Moses and Maimonides is a topic Ivry, Fradkin and Fox hence suggest must be of central importance to Strauss’ later thoughts on Maimonides (#31 start/162).26 However, qualifying Fradkin’s observation that Strauss’ ‘How to Begin …’ focuses almost exclusively on Guide I.1-70, Strauss’ central paragraphs (#30-42/161-171) cite widely from the Guide’s three Books. From the 52nd paragraph through to the penultimate, 57th paragraph, Strauss’ text engages with question of God’s existence, and the competing views and arguments of the prophets, philosophers and the Kalam. In this section of his essay, Strauss again cites in nearly equal measure from the Guide, Books II and III, as well as Book I, chapters 71-75. (#52-57/178-183)
- Part One: Concerning the Literary Character of the Guide
Paragraphs 1-8: concerning the plan of the Guide, its order and its obscurity;
Paragraphs 9-19: concerning the addressee/s of the Guide, as the key to understanding the structure of the Guide, including the primary importance of the opening 49 chapters on incorporeality.
- Part Two: Concerning the Substance of the Guide
Paragraphs 20-47: concerning the chapters on God’s Incorporeality (Strauss’ Guide Section I, subsections 1-4);
Paragraphs 30-42: digression concerning the possibility of intellectual or religious progress beyond the Torah, culminating in the paragraph that starts by identifying the Guide as The Torah for the Perplexed (#42/171);
Paragraphs 48-51: on God’s Unity (Guide I. 50-70; Strauss’ Guide I. 5-7), and its ‘perplexing and upsetting character’ (#52 start/180);
Paragraphs 52-57: on God’s Existence, and competing views on the creation or eternity of the world (Guide I.70 to III end);
Paragraph 58: conclusion to the whole essay, headed by the salutary principle that ‘we have been compelled to put a greater emphasis on Maimonides’ perplexities than on his certainties, and in particular on his vigorous and skilful defence of the Law, because the latter are more accessible than the former’ (#58/183-184).
This structure has the virtue of respecting Strauss’ emphasis on 7 as a structuring number for the Guide, which he might plausibly have wished to replicate in an ‘Introduction’ to the text itself. However, as the division into two Parts (which do not match that of Strauss’ Guide)27 shows, it tries to respond primarily to the discernible, substantive preoccupations of Strauss’ difficult essay as it proceeds. Most notably, it responds to Maimonides’ three-fold focus in the Guide on the Incorporeality, Unity, and Existence of God and creation ex nihilo; topics that orient Strauss’ essay from its 20th through to the penultimate 57th paragraph (pp. 154-183). Strauss plausibly signals changes of topic at the beginning of paragraph 9 (p. 145), by saying: ‘Let us retrace our steps’. He signals the close of the central digression at the start of paragraph 43 (p. 172), by saying: ‘Our desire to give the readers some hints for the better understanding of the second subsection compelled us to look beyond the immediate context. Returning to that context …’, the opening of paragraph 52 also clearly puts a full stop on the preceding sequence of thoughts: ‘This must suffice towards making clear the perplexing and upsetting character of Maimonides’ teaching regarding unity’ (#52 start/178). These things said, there are other stylistic irregularities in ‘How to Begin to Study’ that could suggest alternative structurings or counts of paragraphs: for instance that paragraphs 16 and 17 begin identically: ‘It is necessary that we understand …’ (p. 150, p. 151).28
As the reader will have become aware, a key principle of our structuring of ‘How to Begin to Study’ is that Strauss’ paragraphs are meant to be numbered and counted by careful readers. The application of this hermeneutic device for reading Strauss is recognised amongst readers of Strauss’ works.29 Yet I suggest there is intra-textual evidence, rewarding the supposition of artfully numbered paragraphs in ‘How to Begin to Study the Guide …’. This evidence falls in the 26th paragraph of the essay (p. 158). Here Strauss interrupts his discussion of Strauss’ Guide subsection I.2 to draw our attention to ‘a certain numerical symbolism that is of assistance to the serious reader of the Guide’, which includes a special significance of the numbers 14 (which indicates in Maimonides ‘man or the human things’, so says Strauss) and 17 (‘nature’).30 However, this 26th paragraph to Strauss’ essay also draws our attention to the Guide I. 26, the 26th paragraph of the body of the Guide. This, as it turns out, is the section of the Guide wherein Maimonides offers the dictum that ‘the Torah speaks according to the language of human beings’, as referring ‘in inclusive fashion to all the kinds of interpretation connected with this topic’ (Guide I.26 start). Strauss interprets this as Maimonides’ universal principle for reading the Torah, connecting this with the fact that 26 is the numerical equivalent of the secret name of the Lord: ‘26 may therefore also stand for His Torah’ (#26/158). Any reading of Strauss that would take seriously his esotericism then might plausibly take this as a hint to ‘serious readers’ of his own essay also, that these and like numerological features operate in the ordering of its paragraphs.31 As such, we might be being directed to pay particular heed to paragraphs and words that begin and end sections, but also (following Strauss’ famous emphasis on the centre of sections, works, lists32) to centre sections, including the central chapter (#29/160) of the whole. A further general possibility that this hermeneutic principle opens up is that we should look to see whether Strauss has artfully written into his ‘How to Begin to Study the Guide …’ meaningful concordances between his own numbering of paragraphs in the essay and sections of the Guide. There are for instance two chapters that interrupt the second (sub)section of Strauss’ essay, paragraphs 12 and 18, just as there are two chapters (I.14 and I.17) of Strauss’ Guide subsection I.2 that prompt Strauss’ own numerological interpolation in paragraph 26 of ‘How to Begin to Study’. These two paragraphs, unusually, begin identically, with: ‘But we must not forget …’, and both concern ‘the most important atypical addressee’ of the Guide: a reader who is critical and competent (#18/152), if not equal to Maimonides himself, hence ‘not in the habit of bowing to any authority’ (#12/148).
Fox and others have judiciously commented of such hermeneutic principles associated with Strauss and his students: ‘there is always a danger that our ingenuity can trap us into merely playing a game with the text instead of understanding the author’s thoughts’.33 Respecting that warning, in what follows, we turn to the substance of Strauss’ essay. The claims we make will all be supported by direct citation, so they meet ‘non-Straussian’ standards for assessing the accuracy of a reading. However, we will also make clear both where numerological and like Straussian hints have supported our assertions, and how.
Substance: Strauss’ Claims Concerning Maimonides
That the ‘enchanted forest’ of Strauss’ Guide for the Perplexed as a whole (#3/142) gives an account of the Whole, or perhaps the Shekhinah (‘the post-biblical term particularly used for God’s indwelling on earth’ [#29 (central section)/169)], if not the ‘tree of life’ (#3/142), and that this is reflected in the Guide’s hidden structuring;
That, as per principally the Guide’s commentary on the doctrine of the attributes (Strauss section 5), Maimonides’ God is not the God ‘who gives life and light to ordinary believers’ (#52/167);
That Maimonides’ ‘perplexing and upsetting’ teaching concerning God (#52/178) identifies Him alternately as the self-intellecting God of the philosophers or [depending on dialectical need (#54/181)] as a perfect being ‘beyond’, ‘neutral to’ or ‘in common’ (#54/180) between Intelligence and Will—‘whose perfection is characterised by the fact that in Him intelligence and Will are indistinguishable because they are both identical with His Essence’ (#54/181), or else ‘is an unfathomable abyss’ simpliciter (#50/177);
That Maimonides’ ‘first word and last word’ in the Guide, the ‘secret par excellence’ of Strauss’ Guide, is the non-identity of the Account of the Beginning (ma’aseh bereshit) and the Account of the Chariot (ma’aseh merkabah) with natural science and divine science (#8/145; #34/166-167), principally since political science will replace metaphysics as the account of God’s providence and governance in the Guide [especially #29 (central paragraph)/160-161]34;
That the highest perfection or way of life for men, which grants them a place in the Court of a Great King (Guide III.51; Strauss #26 end/157), is the life of the intellect (#36/166)—when ‘life’ is not identified with intellect simpliciter (#51/178)—as intellect is one feature men can hold in common with the God in a way that is not merely homonymous (loc cit.);
That the God of revelation, Who gives light and life to ordinary believers, is a salutary political teaching or pia fraus35 (‘… not only inadequate or misleading but … the notion of something that simply does not exist—of a merely imaginary being, the theme of deceived and deceiving men (I 60)’ [#52/179 (and see ii. Above)], as indicated primarily by Maimonides’ teaching concerning the divine attributes (esp. Guide I. 54; Strauss #48-51/175-178) and providence (#34/164; also #38/167; #29/160), but also by Maimonides’ treatment of divine science and creation ex nihilo (#52-57/178-183);
That the Torah under Maimonides ‘intellectualisation’ [#42 (end)/172] both teaches esoterically and does not exoterically teach these things, which were known to Abraham, Moses and Solomon, as ‘men of speculation’ (#31/162). There is however a ‘progress’ or—better, perhaps—‘process’ (as per the seeming misspelling at the start of #39/168) from Moses to Maimonides36 concerning what can be conveyed, publically, in writing concerning God’s incorporeality, unity and being, and the roots of the Law. Maimonides’ Guide can indeed be thought a ‘Torah for the Perplexed’ (#42/171), with Maimonides as the rabbi or ‘vicar’ to Moses’ philosopher-king.37
The Guide and the Tree of Life; the Shekhinah: Marvin Fox objects that Strauss provides no clear explanation for ‘the general reason indicated’ that the Guide should have been divided into 7s (#47/172). Strauss says that he has ‘indicated’ this general reason. It hardly bears saying that 7 is a number with many important significances in Hebrew thought, beginning with the account of the creation of the whole in Genesis I. This might be the indicated Straussian reason, which he felt did not bear explicit statement. If so, it would indicate that the Guide is for Strauss as a ‘key’ opening a wise account of the whole, or of creation. (#3/143; #58/184) One thing Strauss does explicitly say concerning the Guide is that it is an ‘enchanting forest’, comparable to ‘the tree of life’, insofar as it is a ‘delight to the eyes’ (#3/142). The fact that Strauss misquotes the end of the Guide’s own Introduction (which he has correctly cited in paragraph 3) so that his own Introduction to the Guide can end with the phrase ‘the eyes will be delighted’ is hence pointedly suggestive39 (#58 end/184). As we will see (in iii and v below), Strauss argues that Maimonides upheld not simply that intellectual perfection is the principal attribute that can non-homonymously be attributed to humans and God (#51/176). Since Strauss’ Maimonides claims that ‘self-intellection is what we mean when we speak of God as “living”’, it follows ‘that even “life” is not merely homonymous when applied to God and to us’ (loc cit.). The ‘life’ with which Strauss is identifying the Guide would then be the life of the mind. It would follow that if the Guide is a tree from whence the fruit of a kind of knowledge is eaten, and Strauss notes that Maimonides pays heed in Guide I to ‘the meaning of eating as acquiring knowledge’ (#46/174; cf. #45/173; Guide I.30, 32; iii and v below).40
Numbering the paragraphs of Strauss’ ‘How to Begin to Study’ points us to the possible centrality of Strauss’ reflections in the essay’s central paragraph, to understanding the essay as a whole. This central paragraph of ‘How to Begin to Study’, the 29th, is an unusual one. It is the second of two paragraphs dealing with Maimonidean silences, which Strauss argues are significant silences. Paragraph 28 states Strauss’ ‘amazement’ at Maimonides’ failure, in considering Hebrew terms for ‘place’ in opening (sub)section I.2, to consider the postbiblical use of this term to refer to God Himself (Guide I.8-28; #28/159). Paragraph 29 argues that Maimonides’ transition from considering Hebrew verbs to verbal nouns from I.22 through I.24 makes significant his breaking the pattern, by recurring again to the verb ‘to dwell’ in I.25. The verb chosen and the context make us expect that I.25 should open with the verbal noun ‘the dwelling’ or Shekhinah: ‘the postbiblical term particularly used for God’s indwelling on earth (#29/160). Although no Guide chapter is devoted to this term, Maimonides does deal with the Shekhinah in his later chapters on providence, Guide III.17-18 and III.22-23, Strauss then notes (loc cit.). On this basis, he continues by proposing a connection between Shekhinah as a theological theme and Maimonides’ thoughts concerning providence. More precisely, he suggests “with some exaggeration” that whereas “the Shekhinah follows Israel, providence follows the intellect’ (#29/160): an intellectualist doctrine concerning general providence (‘providence follows the intelligence of the individual human being’), which he attributes to Plato and Job later in the essay (#56/182). Again several possible inferences are hinted at here, not least concerning Strauss’ views concerning the rank of the intellect, to which we will return (cf. iii and v below). The largest significances hinted at become evident when Strauss contends that ‘providence’ can ‘to some extent’ be replaced by ‘governance’, the translation of the Hebrew Merkabah, ‘Chariot’ (loc cit.). We will return to this, and Strauss’ views on particular providence as a politic teaching, when we consider iv in our Conclusion below.
- ii.That Maimonides’ God is not He who ‘gives light and life to ordinary believers’ (#52/167): This claim is at once so controversial in Maimonidean scholarship and wider Judaism, and yet so boldly stated by Strauss in ‘How to Begin to Study the Guide for the Perplexed’, that the best way to begin a section on it is by citing Strauss’ boldest statements on this matter in full:
Whether this is a true reading of Maimonides’ theology or not, these remarkably ‘perplexing and upsetting’ statements (#52/178) seem to leave the exegete only the task of understanding what Maimonidean evidence Strauss believes support it. This evidence is provided in the fifth (sub)section of Strauss’ essay (paragraphs 48-51; pp. 175-178; see above) concerning Maimonides’ arguments concerning God’s Unity (Guide I. 50-60; Strauss’ Guide I.4-7). These chapters of the Guide, Strauss notes, are far more proportionally speculative or non-lexicographic than the previous 49 chapters on Incorporeality—if they are not ‘entirely speculative’ (#48/175). Five of the 11 chapters, Strauss comments, do not cite any Jewish expressions, and 10 do not cite the Torah (#48/175). He notes with amazement that Maimonides does not cite Deuteronomy 6:4 (‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord is Our God, the Lord is One’) in these chapters (#49/175).41 The force of these chapters, Strauss contends, is to recast the traditional Jewish teaching of God’s Unity ‘in accordance with the requirements of speculation’ (loc cit.). Strauss means what is sometimes called Maimonides’ negative theology, and the claim that God’ Unity or Uniqueness means (contra the tradition) denying the possibility of ascribing any positive attributes to His Being, as against His Action.
Every open-minded and discerning reader must be struck by the difference between the hidden God of Maimonides‟ doctrine of attributes and the hidden God who spoke to the Patriarchs and to Moses or, to employ Maimonides‟ manner of expression, by the difference between the true understanding of God as it was possessed by the Patriarchs and by Moses and the understanding of God on the part of the initiated Jews. The result of his doctrine of the divine attributes is that the notion of God that gives life and light to the ordinary believers not only is inadequate or misleading but is the notion of something that simply does not exist—of a merely imaginary being, the theme of deceived and deceiving men. ([see] I 60) (#52/178-179)
The exoteric or salutary meaning of the doctrine of the attributes as Maimonides presents it, Strauss notes, is to deny any possible imperfections to Him. This is so believers can be assured that He is ‘the absolute perfect being, the complete and perfectly self-sufficient good, the being of absolute beauty or nobility’ (I.35, 53, 58, 39, 60 end, I.22) (#50/176). However, Strauss’ reading is that Maimonides’ presentation of this doctrine in the Guide risks being ‘entirely negative and subversive’ (#50/176), short of stressing the association of God’s Unity with His Perfection.42 Strauss’ Guide casts great doubt upon the ‘human perfections’ traditionally attributed to God, whether they can intelligently be so attributed and whether they are mutually compatible (#50/177). Strauss mentions divine Justice, for instance (loc cit.; cf. vi. below). On the one hand, Strauss comments that Maimonides’ negation of all attributes to Him can be considered the unbiblical but ‘nevertheless appropriate expression of the biblical … teaching regarding the hidden God who created the world out of nothing to increase the good’ (#50/177). That said, Strauss calls attention to this doctrine’s potential incompatibility with the biblical teaching concerning God’s 13 attributes (#49/175-6). This doctrine implies first of all that God cannot speak (he cites Guide I.23 here), which Strauss gnomically assesses as having ‘infinite consequences’ of some kind (#37/167). It secondly, if equally heterodoxically, implies that the only true praise of God by believers is speechless prayer or ‘silence’, whereas initiated Jews are clearly commanded by the Torah to call God ‘great, mighty, and terrible’ in praying to Him (#49/176).Maimonides’ doctrine of divine perfection in the Guide, Leo Strauss for these reasons claims, means that ‘God’s perfection is an unfathomable abyss’ (#50/177). The reader is left to wonder about the meaning of this Straussian claim, and whether or how it might relate to Strauss’ stress on Maimonides’ having forbidden the doctrine’s ‘full’ content from being taught to the vulgar (#49/176). Concerning Maimonides’ claims concerning the incomparability of God—‘the meaning’ of His perfection as Strauss sees things—Strauss certainly says some potentially upsetting things for the believing Jew. First, he notes the true but non-Maimonidean implication that ‘… absolute dissimilarity or incompatibility to everything else is characteristic of nothing, as well as of God’ (#50/176).43 Were it not for the teaching concerning Unity as bespeaking His creative omnibenevolence, Strauss likewise claims, the teaching concerning divine Unity:
It is on these textual bases that any reasonably attentive reader of ‘How to Begin to Study …’ is compelled to ascribe to Strauss the argued conviction that Maimonides’ God was not identical with God that gives light and life to ordinary believers.
… culminates in the assertion that we grasp of God only that He is and not what He is in such a manner that every positive predication made of Him, including that He ‘is’, has only the name in common with what we mean when we apply such predications to any being (I.56, 58, 58, 60). If we did not know that God is absolutely perfect, we would ascribe we know not what to what we do not know in ascribing to him ‘Being’, or we would ascribe nothing to nothing: we certainly would not know what we were talking about (#50/176).
That Maimonides’ ‘perplexing and upsetting’ teaching concerning God (#52/178) identifies Him for Strauss alternately as the self-intellecting God of the philosophers or [depending on dialectical, not demonstrative, need (#54/181)] as a perfect being ‘beyond’, ‘neutral to’ or ‘in common’ (#54/180) between Intelligence and Will. We noted in the introduction, as one motive for presenting these interpretive remarks on ‘How to Begin …’, the strange coincidence concerning Strauss’ views in Maimonides scholarship: on the one hand, the lament that Strauss is too deliberately obscure; and on the other, that his intellectualism is all too clear. We turn in the next two subsections here to providing some evidence in this late Straussian essay on Maimonides, which does strongly support, but so adds content to, this scholarly consensus.
The evidence is centred in the ultimate chapter of Strauss’ fifth (sub)section. Poetically, this (sub)section of Strauss’ essay concerns the last subsection in Strauss’ Guide section I (I.1-70), being the three Guide chapters I.68-70, the last Maimonides devotes to God’s Unity. In these last chapters of section I, Strauss comments, Maimonides not only returns to speculation: ‘it would be more accurate to say he turns to philosophy’ (#51/177). Strauss’ Maimonides indeed mentions philosophy more frequently than in any preceding subsections, a sharp contrast with the failure to cite philosophy at all in the preceding exegetical chapters on the divine names (loc cit.). Strauss positions the turn to philosophy in the context of Maimonides’ need to somehow discuss how God can and does speak or cease to speak—for how else could the Torah be possible?—despite the implications of his discussion of the merely homonymous nature of assigning to God positive attributes. This topic is what Strauss believes draws Maimonides in Guide I.68 to discuss ‘the subject we cannot help calling the divine attribute of intellect’ (#51/178). In Guide I.68, Maimonides makes a series of seemingly Aristotelian statements concerning the triad of intellect, intellecting and what is intellected. In the case of God, these three are one and simple, or indivisible. One thing this would mean that God’s Intellect would have to be distinguished from His Will, as Strauss specifically notes: since the Will and the thing willed must necessarily or by definition differ (loc cit.). Strauss has earlier associated the Will in fact with the other bodily attributes Maimonides’ negative theology prescribes as truthfully ascribable to God (#20/154). This self-intellection of God hence clearly comes closer than any emphasis on His unfathomable Will to the meaning of Strauss’ Maimonides’ claims concerning the divine name, which indicates God’s hidden essence over against His attributes (#51/177). Strauss goes further. Such divine self-intellection, Strauss claims, is what we should mean—or what Strauss’ Maimonides wants his atypical readers to mean—when they speak of God as ‘living’ (#51/178).44 In the immediate context, to close paragraph 51, Strauss draws our attention to Maimonides’ discussion of God as the formal cause of the world in Guide I.69, as against His status as the efficient or final cause of the world. The ‘life of the world’ is a Jewish expression, Strauss observes, for what Maimonides and the philosophers before him had called the formal cause of the world.45 The reader of I.69 ‘may find it helpful’ to recall Maimonides’ teaching concerning the life-as-self intellection of God, Strauss cryptically comments (loc cit.). It is difficult to discern with clarity what help Strauss is implying here.46 Strauss’ suggestion, we can discern, completely abstracts from the primary dialectical reason Maimonides gives at the close of Guide I.69 for citing the teaching concerning God as He who ‘continually endows [the world] with permanence and constant existence’: namely, to discredit those amongst the Mutakallimun who have tried to suggest that, since God is only a maker, if He did not exist, neither would our world, the world that He has made (Guide I.69 end).As Hillel Fradkin has emphasised, it is not possible to say that Strauss’ Maimonides simply turns to the God of the philosophers, if this is taken to imply that this intellectual God is wholly absent in the pages of the Torah. Fradkin cites paragraph 50 (p. 177), wherein Strauss observes that Maimonides’ God without positive attributes, ‘in spite of its philosophic origin, can be regarded as the indeed unbiblical but nevertheless appropriate expression of the biblical principle, namely, of the biblical teaching regarding the hidden God who created the world out of nothing … without any ground, in absolute freedom’. In this way, Fradkin suggests we might contend Strauss opts for Jerusalem or the God of the Torah, for going beyond the philosophers in the rigor of their teaching of the extramundane incorporeality of God47 (cf. #54/181). This transcendence of philosophy would hence involve accepting the creator-God of the Torah, whose hiddenness would be tied less to His Intellect than His unfathomable Will. In (sub)section IV of ‘How to Begin to Study’ (#54/181), Strauss does indeed differentiate Maimonides’ God from the purely Intellectual God of the philosophers. ‘Generally speaking’, Strauss begins:
... the Guide moves between the view that Intellect and Will are indistinguishable and the view that they must be distinguished (and hence that one must understand God as Intelligence rather than as Will) in accordance with the requirements of the different subjects under discussion (cf. II.25 and III.25) (#54/181).However, we suggest that looking at the biblical God Strauss finds in Maimonides’ Guide should provoke exegetical caution here, alongside the purely dialectical or sophistical reason Strauss assigns in this passage to Maimonides’ oscillating acceptance of a biblical God in whom Will would be identical to His Intellect (cf. #53 start/180).48 Certainly, there is evidence in ‘How to Begin to Study…’ that Strauss believes Maimonides to have attributed knowledge of his non- or post-Mosaic God to the biblical patriarch Abraham. We find this evidence on the central page of Strauss’ essay (p. 162), in the 31st paragraph: viz. at the beginning of (sub)section IV of Strauss’ essay on ‘why progress beyond the teaching of the Torah is possible or even necessary…’. At this point in his essay, within about ten lines, Strauss cites two contradictory biblical passages adduced by Maimonides at different points of the Guide on the important matter of the divine name YHVH. In the first, Exodus 6:3, God tells Moses that He ‘was not known to’ Abraham, Isaac and Joseph, by this highest name. At Genesis 21:33, cited by Maimonides in Guide I.63—the heart of his discussion of divine names—we are told that Abraham called ‘on the name of YHVH, the God of the world’. Strauss’ exegesis of this biblical contradiction is enigmatic but full of portent. It begins from Maimonides’ frequent argument concerning Abraham as a ‘man of speculation’, more like in this way to the philosophers than to the prophets beginning with Moses:
Only this much may be said to emerge: Abraham was a man of speculation who instructed his subjects or followers, rather than a prophet who convinced by miracles and ruled by means of promises and threats, and this is somehow connected with the fact that he called ‘on the name of YHVH, the God of the world’ (Gen, 21:33) (I.63; II.13), that is, the God of the transmoral whole rather than the Law-giving God [#31/162, (italics ours)].
It is in this context that Strauss comments that it is this ‘Abrahamic expression’—‘in the name of the Lord, God of the World’ (Guide Epistle Dedicatory, Part I, p. 3)—that opens each part of the Guide and some other of Maimonides’ texts. This might be one type of evidence that has led to the scholarly consensus we raised in our Introduction, concerning Strauss’ assignment to Maimonides of an esoteric opting for the transmoral or intellectual God of men of speculation—between the lines of his exegetical activity as a Jewish teacher of the science of the Law. The fuller picture only takes form when we consider in more detail what Strauss says in (sub)section 6 of ‘How to Begin to Study’ concerning the speculative demonstrations of God’s existence. Here, Strauss comes very close to explicitly accepting, or attributing to Maimonides, the Aristotelian position on ‘the demonstration of the basic verities’ (#55/181). Maimonides does ‘say’ that he can prove the incorporeality and unity of God without presupposing the Aristotelian teaching concerning the eternity of the world, Strauss notes. Yet Strauss immediately questions this saying49: ‘but it is, to say the least, not quite clear whether the proofs in question do not in fact presuppose the eternity of the world’ (#55/181). Moreover, Strauss questions why, if there were such proofs, Maimonides should have felt any need at all to provisionally grant the Aristotelian eternity to demonstrate His being, unity and incorporeality: ‘yet Maimonides asserts most emphatically that there is such a need’ (#55/182).
The issue here is grave: since Strauss poses stridently here that ‘the Law stands or falls by the belief in the creation of the world,’ Maimonides’ proposing of Aristotelian premises, while ministerial to a reverent emphasis on the being, unity and incorporeality, contradicts the sine qua non of the Law (loc cit.). It thence seems very plausible to interpret Strauss as suggesting that Maimonides had a deep conviction in the philosophic teaching concerning the eternity of the world, since only such a conviction could have motivated this flirtation with the ‘most serious difficulty’ of implicitly doubting the metaphysical first premise of the Law (loc cit.). In favour of such a reading, we note that Strauss says that Maimonides was ‘compelled’ by the need to defend the Law, and hence creation ex nihilo, to his criticism of Aristotle’s teachings on the basic verities (#57/183; cf. #55/80). Yet in each of two cases, Strauss indicates that Maimonides’ submitting to this lawful compulsion leads to unsatisfactory intellectual perplexities. First: Maimonides’ being compelled by the need to protect the roots of the Law motivates his criticism of Aristotle’s account of heaven (#57/183). This criticism leads Maimonides to suggest ‘that the only genuine science of beings is natural science or a part of it’. Yet this contradicts Maimonides’ statements elsewhere (II.18) concerning how knowledge of heaven ‘provides the best or only proof of the being of God’ (#57/183; cf. #16/151). Strauss does not state the other inference that beckons here: that divine science, one of the explicitly central concerns of the Guide (cf. #8/145), on this reasoning would become a contradictio in adjectivo. Second: Maimonides draws upon Kalam premises to expedite his salutary criticism of the Aristotelian teaching concerning the eternity of the world. However, Strauss immediately directs us that we must find out what these premises are, and consider where and how Maimonides elsewhere judges these premises, if we are to assess their demonstrative force (#56 end/183). Strauss helpfully states the premises at stake in the present context: the Kalam define the possible as what is imaginable or not logically self-contradictory, rather than Aristotelian physics: ‘what is in accordance of the nature of the thing in question or with what possesses an available visible substratum’ (#56/183). A careful reader then recalls firstly that Strauss has drawn our attention to Maimonides harsh assessment of the ‘sophistical’ or ‘dialectical’ nature of the Kalam proofs in Guide I.71 (#53/179-180): in Strauss’ gloss, ‘after all, the Kalam selected its premises with a view to proving the roots of the Law: the premise of its premise is these roots’ (#53/180; cf. #54 start/180). This is the exact premise or ‘compulsion’ Strauss has attributed to Maimonides in ‘How to Begin to Study’, paragraphs 55 and 56.
We should also here recall a further passage from the central (sub)section of Strauss’ essay (#37 end/167). In this passage, Strauss argues that the ‘fundamental difficulty’ of how to differentiate between the suprarational statements in the Torah [‘which must be believed’ (#37/166)], and the ‘infrarational’ attributions in the Torah [which cannot be believed, but demand allegorical exegesis (#37/167)] comes from a demonstration of what is possible on the basis of natural science or Aristotelian physics. The fundamental difficulty of understanding prophecy should be decided according to the assignment of possibilities accepted by reason or demonstration, claims Leo Strauss.50 Our understanding of Strauss’ exegetical claims concerning Maimonides’ God as the God of the philosophers, and in this sense ‘the life of the world’, however can only be completed by our next exegetical heading.
David Novak, ‘Responding to Leo Strauss: Four Recent Maimonidean Studies’, Conservative Judaism 44/3 (1992) 80-86, p. 80.
Hereafter, for sake of convenience, we will mostly abbreviate this title, to ‘How to Begin to Study’. For reasons stated in a moment, I will refer to ‘How to Begin to Study’ by the paragraph number (#), followed by the page reference. In preparing this essay, I have used the version printed in Liberalism Ancient and Modern (pp. 140-184), to which the page numbers refer
Marvin Fox, Interpreting Maimonides (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), p. 48.
Michael Zank, ‘Arousing Suspicion against a Prejudice: Leo Strauss and the Study of Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed’ (pdf copy provided by the author), pp. 1-24; Joseph A. Buijs, ‘The Philosophical Character of Maimonides’ Guide—A Critique of Strauss’ Interpretation’ Judaism 27, No. 4 (Fall, 1978), pp. 448-457. The exceptions the author has been able to discover are Hillel Fradkin’s ‘A Word Fitly Spoken’, in Leo Strauss and Judaism (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996), pp. 55-86, and Alfred L. Ivry, ‘Leo Strauss and Maimonides’ in Leo Strauss’s Thought. Ed. Alan Udoff. Boulder: Lynne Reiner, 1991, pp. 75-91, esp. pp. 86-89; Kenneth Seeskin, Kenneth Seeskin, ‘Maimonides’ Conception of Philosophy’, in Leo Strauss and Judaism, ed. David Novak (USA: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996), pp.87-110; as well as Fox, Interpreting Maimonides, pp. 54-64 and pp. 69-82; to which we shall be returning as we proceed in the central part of the essay.
Fox for instance argues that Strauss’ repetition of Maimonides’ esotericism in today’s political and pedagogic conditions is ‘neither possible nor desirable’. For ‘all its brilliance and ingenuity’, Fox contends that Strauss’ Maimonides essays, particularly ‘How to Begin to Study…’:… seem to do little to advance the cause of sound understanding, even for readers who are well prepared and sophisticated. If the only way to expound an esoteric text is by compounding and complicating the esotericism, then perhaps we should give up the effort altogether.” At Fox, Interpreting Maimonides, p. 63. Compare Seeskin, ‘Maimonides’ Conception of Philosophy’, at p. 92: ‘… and there is no reason why an interpreter cannot discuss Maimonides’ contribution in a forthright manner.’
In Yeshayahu Leibowitz, ‘Maimonides—An Abrahamic Man’, Judaism 6:2 (1957). See Paul Mendes-Flohr, ‘Maimonides in the Crucible of Zionism’, in Maimonides and His Heritage ed. Idit Dobbs-Weinstein et al (Suny Press: Albany, 2009), p. 184. ‘The enture spiritual atmosphere’ of Maimonides’ writings refute the ‘absurd and fallacious’ reading of him as primarily a philosopher, Leibowitz argues (at loc cit.).
Menachem Kellner, ‘Strauss’ Maimonides vs. Maimonides’ Maimonides: Could Maimonides have been both enlightened and Orthodox?’ in Le-aleh, December 2000, pp. 29-36, at p. 30. Kellner’s other, less flattering, comparison of Strauss’ intellectual is with autistics.
Strauss ‘How to Begin’, paragraph 4, p. 142. In his essay on Judah Halevi in Persecution and the Art of Writing, again Strauss comments that ‘Jews of the philosophic competence of Halevi and Maimonides took it for granted that being a Jew and being a philosopher are mutually exclusive …’, Persecution and the Art of Writing, p.90. In ‘The Literary Character …’, we read again that Strauss believes that: ‘He [Maimonides] obviously assumes that the philosophers form a group distinguished from the group of adherents of the law and that both groups are mutually exclusive.’, loc cit., pp. 41-42; and ‘Since he [Maimonides] himself is an adherent of the Law, he cannot possibly be a philosopher, and consequently a book of his [ie. the Guide] in which he explains his views concerning all important topics cannot possibly be a philosophic book. (II. 15, 21, 26; III, 17, 20, 21)’, ‘Literary Character, p. 43. Buijs strongly disputes this Straussian premise or conclusion in Buijs, ‘The Philosophical Character of Maimonides’ Guide—A Critique of Strauss’ Interpretation’, esp. p. 449. As for the issue of there being no possible synthesis between philosophy and revelation, we would add that Strauss, far from being univocal, contradicts himself in ‘The Literary Character’, in the space of seven pages wherein he has been discussing Maimonides’ use of contradictions, on this fundamental issue. At page 69, we are told: ‘From this result, the inference must be drawn that no interpreter of the Guide is entitled to attempt a “personal” explanation of its contradictions. For example, he must not try to trace them back to the fact, or the assumption, that the two traditions which Maimonides tried to reconcile, i.e. the Biblical tradition and the philosophical tradition are actually irreconcilable.’ But then at page 76, we are instructed by Strauss: ‘Returning to Maimonides’ use of contradictions, one may assume that all important contradictions in the Guide may be reduced to the single fundamental contradiction between the true teaching, based on reason, and the untrue teaching, emanating from imagination …’ This perplexity in Strauss’ thoughts on Maimonides makes the consensus on his supposed esoteric teaching itself unusual.
Kenneth Hart Green, Jew and Philosopher (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993), p. 128.
Green, Jew and Philosopher, pp. 128-129.
Warren Zev Harvey, ‘The Return of Maimonideanism’, Jewish Social Studies, Vol. 42, No. 3/4 (Summer-Autumn 1980), pp. 249-268; at p. 254.
Kellner, ‘Strauss’ Maimonides’, p. 34, n. 2.
Leo Strauss, ‘Some Remarks on the Political Science of Maimonides and Farabi’, translated by Robert Bartlett, in Interpretation Fall 1990, Vol. 18, No. 1, pp. 3-30.
To inventory: Strauss wrote some 11 essays on Maimonides in his career, while three of the fifteen chapters of Strauss’ last book, Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, are devoted to Maimonides. Strauss’ ‘The Literary Character of the Guide for the Perplexed’ is the central third out of five chapters in Persecution and the Art of Writing. See the interpolation added by the translators at p. 549 of Leo Strauss, ‘The Place of the Doctrine of Providence According to Maimonides’ trans. Gabriel Bartlett and Svetozar Minkov, in Review of Metaphysics 57 (March 2004): 537-549. See also particularly Green, Jew and Philosopher, whose whole work defends this notion, of Maimonides’ primary import to Strauss; but also Remi Brague’s strong assessment in his ‘Leo Strauss and Maimonides’: ‘The relationship of Strauss to Maimonides is central, permanent, and decisive. Maimonides is the permanent object of his scholarly [erudite] researches, he is the source of what Strauss estimates as his grand discovery, and the inspiration of his method (which, in its actuality, is also a style), his [personal] way of philosophy. Maimonides is present at all the stages, chronologically speaking, of Strauss’ career.’ In the original: ‘(L)e rapport à Maimonide est chez Strauss central, permanent, et décisif. Maimonide est l’objet permanent de ses recherches érudites, il est la source de ce qu’il estimait être sa grande découverte, il est l’inspirateur de sa méthode (qui, en l’occurrence, est plutôt un style) philosophique personelle. [...] Maimonide est présent à toutes les étapes, chonologiquement parlant, de la carrière de Strauss.’ Rémi Brague, ‘Leo Strauss et Maimonide’, in: Shlomo Pines and Yirmiyahu Yovel (eds.), Maimonides and Philosophy. Papers Presented at the Sixth Philosophical Encounter, May 1985, Dordrecht 1986: 246-268, at p. 246. Shlomo Pines is reputed to have said, when asked whether there were any Maimonideans alive today, that ‘there is Leo Strauss’. Cf. Shlomo Pines, ‘Al Leo Strauss [On Leo Strauss]’, Molad, 7, nos. 37-38 (1976), 455-57. In this article, Pines states that ‘he [Strauss] was perhaps the first one, after the medieval commentators, who read with attention Maimonides' book [the Guide].’ We note that he states here also: ‘[Strauss] saw himself as a philosopher’; and ‘he was a philosopher.’
See in particular the titular chapter one, ‘Persecution and the Art of Writing’, pp. 22-37.
For reasons stated in a moment, I will refer to ‘How to Begin to Study’ by the paragraph number (#), followed by the page reference. In preparing this essay, I have used the version printed in Liberalism Ancient and Modern (pp. 140-184), to which the page numbers refer.
Strauss, ‘How to Begin to Study Maimonides’ Guide’, p. 140.
Strauss spends more time on this in Leo Strauss ‘The Literary Character of the Guide for the Perplexed’, in Persecution and the Art of Writing, pp. 53-55. Note that Kenneth Seeskin forcibly challenges Strauss’ literal reading of Maimonides’ claim about ‘chapter headings’, in Seeskin, ‘Maimonides’ Conception of Philosophy’, at p. 100, where he claims that Maimonides’ claim concerning ‘chapter headings’ ‘may simply be his way of saying that he cannot resolve every issue or provide a complete account of every theory’. This claim sits with Seeskin’s overall situation of Maimonides as an Aristotelian aware of the limits of human reason, writing on very obscure matters, whose esotericism can be at least largely explained by this difficulty concerning the topics the Guide addresses (cf. esp. pp.92-99).
One of many enigmas is that Strauss states that the Guide on his count has 38 subsections, when the plan he has just given has 37. One solution to this, presuming the error is intentional, is to indicate that the Epistle dedicatory, plus the Introductions to the three Parts, forms an extra subsection. Given the numerological commitments indicated in the 26the paragraph on the number 26 9see anon), however, Strauss may also be pointing some readers towards ‘37’ as having some particular, hidden, importance. As indicated concerning other such possible ‘hints’, it is not possible to do more than speculate about this. Compare Fox, Interpreting Maimonides, pp. 56-63.
As Fox registers and complains, at Interpreting Maimonides, p. 56.
Following the formatting in Liberalism: Ancient and Modern, and to distinguish the Strauss sections from the Romanised book numbers from the Guide, I have used the smaller font here and throughout for numbering the Strauss-Guide sections.
This is the guiding hermeneutic insight from the beginning of Strauss, ‘The Place of the Doctrine of Providence According to Maimonides (1937)’, trans. Gabriel Bartlett and Svetozar Minkov. The Review of Metaphysics 57 (March 2004): 537-549, p. 539. See p. 540 for Strauss’ inference from this structural or formal feature of the Guide: this doctrine has little philosophical merit, so we must ‘attribute this doctrine to the practical or political philosophy’ of Maimonides. See also Conclusion below.
Cf. Leo Strauss, ‘The Place of Providence According to Maimonides (1937)’, esp. pp. 537-541.
Fradkin, ‘A Word Fitly Spoken …’, p. 69.
To try to minimise confusion between talking of the Guide and its own exoteric divisions and Strauss’ view of the Guide, when we talk of Strauss’ divisions of the Guide, we will do so by talking of ‘Strauss-Guide’ or ‘Strauss’-Guide’ in all of what follows. We will also abbreviate the full title of Strauss’ essay to ‘How to Begin to Study’.
Cf. Ivry, ‘Leo Strauss on Maimonides’, pp. 86-88; Fradkin, ‘A Word Fitly Spoken …’, pp. 73-77; Fox, Interpreting Maimonides, p. 59; Ivry, ‘Leo Strauss on Maimonides’, pp. 87-88.
It in addition does not appear possible to divide the sections or subsections of Strauss’ essay by 7s, as if it aimed to wholly or simply duplicate the Guide.
Paragraph 55 interrupts or steps back from a discussion of Maimonides’ views on God, the intellect and the Will to a general consideration which might plausibly mark a section beginning: ‘The reader of the Guide must consider with the proper care not only the outlines of Maimonides’ way but also all its windings.’ (#55/180) However, this paragraph then returns to these obscure metaphysical matters, in a way which I have taken to indicate a continuity with previous paragraphs. Perhaps with more exegetic force, one could see a subsection between paragraphs 35 and 29, girt by two interpolated chapters on providence (#34/164-165 and #40/168-169).
For instance, Michael and Catherine Zuckert in The Truth of Leo Strauss point out how Strauss deliberately produced a chapter of 26 paragraphs on Niccolo Machiavelli’s Prince, which has 26 chapters, a numerical fact Strauss finds significant (Michael and Catherine Zuckert, The Truth of Leo Strauss(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), p. 138. See in particular Strauss Thoughts on Machiavelli (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), p. 52; also p. 37 (end of Chapter I, paragraph 26), and the end of paragraph 26 in ‘How to Begin to Study The Guide for the Perplexed’: being ‘the court of a great king’ (#26/158; also our end below).; also The City and Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), p. 55. In Kim A. Sorenson Discourses on Strauss (University of Notre Dame Press: Notre Dame, 2006), the author divides the last chapter of that work into hidden subsections, on the basis of numbered paragraphs, at pp. 166-167; similarly, Lawrence Lampert, Leo Strauss and Nietzsche (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) numbers the paragraphs of Strauss’ ‘Note on the Plan of Beyond Good and Evil’, at pp.188-205.
We note that Fox again has questioned the orthodoxy or accuracy of these numerical attributions, at Fox, Interpreting Maimonides, p. 58. Fox also presents an interesting reading of the association of 14 by Strauss with man, given that 14 is associated closely by Maimonides (as per the 14 books of the Mishnah Torah) with the Torah.
A strong reading would suggest that this numerological principle in Strauss essays takes the place of the allegoric principle for reading Torah in the Guide, as the key to understanding the whole. This temptation needs to be balanced, and subordinated, to considerations of content.
For instance in Persecution and the Art of Writing, pp. 24-25 and p. 185; compare for instance Leo Strauss, The City and Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), p. 73, bottom. Interestingly, this Straussian emphasis on the centre is at once widely accepted in secondary texts, but rarely cited.
Fox, Interpreting Maimonides, p. 59.
Principally, not exclusively. Strauss also notes that the defence of creation ex nihilo, in the parts of the Guide devoted to, is not identical with philosophic metaphysics. Indeed, Maimonides is at pains to stress the non-identity between Aristotle’s teachings and those of Moses. See Guide II. 1-31) See Seeskin, ‘Maimonides’ Conception of Philosophy’, pp. 96-99 for a very different understanding of Maimonides’ engagement with these metaphysical issues.
Cf. Zank, p. 6.
If not to Leo Strauss. The reader is left to ponder these things. Strauss’ total critique of modern political thought, and ‘progress’ in this sense, as culminating in nihilism invites the hypothesis that Strauss’ choice of such extreme esotericism in ‘How to Begin to Study the Guide’ and contemporary texts reflects his belief that the progress Maimonides observed and responded to had reversed. Here as elsewhere, the interpreter must recognise the folly in asserting the thesis categorically, when its contrary is certainly not demonstrable. (cf. Guide I.32)
Cf. Leo Strauss, ‘Some Remarks on the Political Science of Maimonides and Farabi’, Interpretation, Fall 1990, Vol. 18, No. 1, p. 18; and our Conclusion below.
Strauss, ‘Some Remarks on the Political Science of Maimonides and Farabi’, pp. 3-30.
As Fox raises, but offers no interpretation. For the reasons given in-text, we have made this poetic figure the title of this essay.
A series of more controversial implications are suggested—but that only—by the notion that the Tree of Life in the biblical story grants immortal life: particularly given the special heed Strauss pays to Maimonides’ ‘silence on the future life in his presentation of the Torah view on providence’ (#40/168) and if the reader recalls the philosophical or Aristotelian view of the philosopher as the most God-like man (see v. below).
Cf. Fox, Interpreting Maimonides, p. 57.
We note for one thing that Strauss acknowledges Maimonides’ attempt to distinguish between God Himself and His actions, noting that this allows Maimonides to continue speaking of attributes of God’s actions. But Strauss acknowledges this Maimonidean position only to then dispute that this should be permissible on his own terms, since if we were to speak even of God’s actions causing ‘effects’ in the lower world, this would imply that God ‘caused’ these effects. Then Strauss: ‘it is difficult to see how “cause”, if applied to God, can leave more than the name in common with “cause” as an intelligible expression.’ (#50/177)
By non-Maimonidean, we mean that this comparison or implication is not explicitly drawn in the Guide.
The attentive reader should be reminded as s/he reads this of the culminating paragraph of the central (sub)section of Strauss’ own essay (#47/174-175). We will return to this in connection with our next exegetical point, v.
In the Guide’s own words: ‘God has therefore, with reference to the world, the status of a form with regard to a thing possessing a form, in virtue of which it is that which it is: a thing the true reality and essence of which are established by that form.’ (Guide I.69/p. 169)
One plausible, again potentially heterodox, reading is that we are meant to think of God’s self-intellection as his essence, and this essence as equivalent without remainder to the formal cause of things in the world, including the sublunar world: viz. as that which provides for their essential intelligibility for all minded beings. Yet in I.69, Maimonides also looks at arguments for God as the efficient cause of partial motions of things within the world, and their final cause or telos. Strauss implies that Maimonides’ emphasis on God’s self-intellection either contradicts these doctrines (on a strong reading), or at least that the self-intellection of God cannot readily ‘help’ readers in understanding these other teachings. As per Strauss final, 58th paragraph, so here we can only draw greater attention to the manifest, manifold perplexities Strauss’ ‘How to Begin to Study’ deliberately poses.
Fradkin, ‘A Word Fitly Spoken …’, pp. 75-76. This provides for Fradkin a philosophical ground, if that is the appropriate adjective, for understanding the Guide as a Jewish book, in Strauss’ eyes.
Cf. Guide I.71 (Pines translation), pp. 177-178 with pp. 180-181.
Citing Guide out of its textual order ‘(cf. II.2 then II.1)’ in a way which is unexplained.
A third set of reasons in this 6th (sub)section justifies a citation. Maimonides’ attempts to defend the Mosaic teaching concerning creation ex nihilo must see his refutation not simply of the Aristotelian teaching concerning the eternity of the world. He needs also to refute the Platonic teaching from the Timaeus concerning a creator-God who creates the world as we know it from eternal matter. Such a teaching can, Strauss says, allow for an acceptance of some miracles, which Strauss states here as sufficient reason for its being ‘not inimical to the Law’. (#55 end/182) Yet Plato’s understanding of providence as following ‘naturally the intelligence of the individual being’ mitigates against the types of miracles Strauss is associating here, through assertion, with a belief in the Law: namely, God’s special providence, and perhaps ‘eternity ex parte post’, for Israel. Yet, Strauss stress, Maimonides the proceeds to fail to refute this doctrine as it has not been demonstrated—an argument Strauss finds unsatisfactory, given that neither the biblical nor the Aristotelian teachings have been demonstrated, yet each is explicitly addressed. Here as elsewhere, the reader is left pondering what, if any, implications concerning Maimonides’ relationship to the Platonic teaching Strauss sees here. These implications are not stated by Strauss.