Cor Blimey, Bento, Leo Strauss is doing my head in. I made the mistake this weekend of starting his Spinoza’s Critique of Religion by reading the preface. What on earth do you think THIS means?
Every assertion about the absolute experience (of God) which says more than that what is experienced is the Presence or the Call, is not the experiencer, is not flesh and blood, is the wholly other, is death or nothingness, is an “image” or interpretation; that any one interpretation is the simply true interpretation is not known but “merely believed”. One cannot establish that any particular interpretation of the absolute experience is the most adequate interpretation on the ground that it alone agrees with all other experiences, for instance with the experienced mystery of the Jewish fate, for the Jewish fate is a mystery only on the basis of a particular interpretation of the absolute experience, or rather the Jewish fate is the outcome of one particular interpretation of the absolute experience.
I could go on. It just destroys thought. Also I have no idea when he is telling us stuff he thinks himself, or stuff others think, or stuff he thinks others think. There is no discernible Leo Strauss to be found in the preface, as far as I can see, just this absolute drivel of the sort above. Needless to say I don’t imagine I will finish the actual book even after hell has frozen over.
So I have been reading about Strauss, rather than reading Strauss; it is much easier, some of the words used even make sense. Turns out he rather likes Spinoza, only sort of though. Some people think he is a friend to liberal democracy, some think not. I’m not sure even his supporters know what the hell he’s on about. For another sort of mind-fuck check this out at Balkinization and go through the comments if you have a spare afternoon and unused mental capacity (I don’t). A vaguely amusing satire of Straussian argument can be found here.
Turns out many people think he actually meant to write like this; he favoured an “esoteric” style, according to his supporters, precisely so the unwashed would not be able to understand. My own experience is that thoughts which cannot be adequately expressed in a few simple phrases tend to be worthless. Strauss’ problem is that he is a German. He is precisely what Allan Bloom worries about in Closing of the American Mind when he writes of the disastrous influx of Jewish and refugee German writers and thinkers in the US in the 1930s and after, who more or less took over University life, crowding out the native empiricist (Spinozist) tradition that had hitherto prevailed, bringing with them their more classical, atavistic, irrational yet more regimented, revelatory types of thought, making their own tawdry concerns and cat fights the stuff of informed campus debate. One strand of the German school, it needs not be said but let’s say it anyway, also led inexorably to fellow-travelling with the NSDAP. Let’s face it; from Leibniz onward, the Germans have got philosophy frighteningly wrong. Their only saving grace was the ability to write such impressively turgid prose that even intelligent people have thought there must be something there, if only they could understand what it is.
Contrast this with our own dear philosopher, whose introduction to the Theological-Political Treatise is a model of pure prose clarity, and could have been written yesterday, it seems so fresh and relevant. “Strauss”, meanwhile, is also the word for “ostrich” in German.