by Abraham Rubin

Review of Leo Strauss and the Politics of Exile: The Making of a Political Philosopher by Eugene R. Sheppard (Brandeis University Press, 2006) 188 pages

The Root of injustice and uncharitableness, which abounds, is not in God, but in the free acts of His creatures–in sin. The Jewish people and their fate are the living witness for the absence of redemption. This, one could say, is the meaning of the chosen people; the Jews are chosen to prove the absence of redemption.

-Leo Strauss, “Why We Remain Jews”

Eugene Sheppard’s erudite intellectual biography is a lucid introduction to Strauss’s itinerant career as a political philosopher writing over five decades, across both sides of the Atlantic. While Leo Strauss (1899-1973) is mainly known today as the poster-boy for American neoconservatism, and hailed guru by the likes of former deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz, Sheppard moves past his image as anti-liberal, arch-conservative thinker, giving his readers a more complex understanding of the historical influences and diverse intellectual origins that shaped Strauss’s thought. This relatively short, 130-page book, ties together the various turns in Strauss’s biography and intellectual career, which began in the political tumult of Weimar Germany, and continued in exile after the rise of Nazism in 1933. Sheppard’s book gives a multi-faceted account of Strauss’s work by exploring the various transformations in his life, from Weimar conservative, to Jewish refugee, and eventual immigrant to the United States.

Sheppard views Strauss as an “exilic” thinker, whose philosophical orientation was the product of the turbulent political and historical context in which he lived. Sheppard essentially proposes a un-Straussian reading of Strauss’s life and work, which emphasizes the environmental and contextual influences on his thought, instead of examining his writing through the timeless hermeneutical principles which Strauss himself employed in his reading of the medieval philosophers. The book examines exile as the central motif that unites the various strands of Strauss’s thought. His formative experience as a German-Jewish refugee, leading a precarious life in exile, informed Strauss’s own intellectual pursuits, which Sheppard describes as being guided by the recognition of “philosophy’s … precarious existence within any existing social order” (6).

Sheppard explores the relationship between the Jewish and non-Jewish facets of Strauss’s life, claiming that the tension between these two poles was the creative driving force that nurtured much of his thought. According to Sheppard, Strauss’s preoccupation with the viability of Jewish existence in the Diaspora, and his first hand experience as an exile, informed all his philosophical work, even when it dealt with universal questions relating to the nature of eternal truths and the dynamics of political community. According to Sheppard’s reading, Strauss converts Jewish exceptionalism, encapsulated in the precarious state of Jewish life in exile, into the paradigm for his philosophic thought. As Sheppard states: “Strauss regarded exile as the natural condition of all political societies. He recast the precarious existence of the Diasporic Jew, who lives in perpetual fear of persecution, as the normative model of the philosopher” (7). The conflicting loyalties of a lapsed-orthodox Jew, writing in a non-Jewish society, brought Strauss to examine political modernity with the skepticism of an outsider, who sought the “philosophic virtues of exile.”

Strauss, who was raised in an observant Jewish family in the rural German town of Kirchhain, attempted to negotiate the particularism of Jewish existence in exile with greater universal concerns relating to the state of political crisis he witnessed across Europe and his native Germany. Strauss extended the continual state of insecurity of Jewish life in galut, or exile, to the state of political uncertainty in interwar Germany. In exploring the link between Strauss’s Jewish concerns and philosophical preoccupations, Sheppard examines the elective affinities between Strauss’s antiliberalism and that of his right-wing contemporaries, Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, who would both go on to align themselves with National Socialism. Schmitt and Heidegger’s critiques of modernity were a response to the failure of liberalism and Enlightenment values of tolerance and social equality in the German setting. Strauss shared their skepticism of modern technology and consensus politics, which he thought merely disguised the deep tensions and animosities that lay beneath the surface of the modern parliamentary system.

Strauss’s negative view of Enlightenment rationalism as the basis for a political system also led him to reject any solution that sought to normalize the Jewish condition of exile. Strauss considered both Zionism and assimilation as misguided attempts to overcome the tensions that defined Jewish existence in galut. According to Strauss, galut affords “the Jewish people a maximum possibility of existence through a condition of minimum normality” (44). Sheppard returns repeatedly to this Straussian paradox, which views the “abject condition of abnormality” as the epitome of the Jewish condition. Sheppard does a wonderful job showing how Strauss’s paradoxical formulation intersects with the interwar writings of Rosenzweig, Heidegger, and Schmitt, who considered the state of existential instability as revelatory of the ontological truths of their time.

Carl Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political (1927) criticizes the liberal system for obscuring the state of enmity that defines politics. According to Schmitt, it is only the prospect of violent confrontation, encapsulated in the friend-enemy distinction, which expresses the authentic state of the political. Similarly, Schmitt’s 1922 work Political Theology, explored the state of exception (ausnahmezustand), as the borderline concept (grenzsituation) that defined political sovereignty. Strauss’s thought coincides with Schmittian and Heideggerian “crisis thinking,” in his conviction that the tendency to seek a third way of reconciling German and Jewish identity entailed a “forgetting of being,” essentially abandoning the fundamentals that constitute Jewish existence: Galut. Ultimately, Strauss saw the irresolvable state of exile, persecution, and intolerance as constitutive of Jewish communal existence. Strauss reformulates the abnormality of the Jewish condition through the Schmittian dictum of true politics as the state of emergency and the Heideggerian confrontation with the nothingness of being.

A later expression of Strauss’s exilic orientation, from the late 1930’s onwards, was his tendency to explicate philosophic works as multilayered texts that employ rhetorical devices to avoid their unintended audience. Strauss read the medieval philosophers, such as Avicenna and Maimonides, as intentionally oblique writers who concealed the true heterodox implications of their work in order to avoid persecution. These works revealed through concealment (yet another central Heideggerian motif), and were aimed at the intellectual elite, who could penetrate their indirect message. The dissimulative strategies Strauss attributed to these writings were an expression of his bleak view of the philosopher’s “homelessness.” According to Strauss the premodern philosopher works under the scrutiny of a regime that demands total allegiance, yet seeks to persevere in his impartial pursuit of universal truth. The philosopher inhabits a tenuous position, caught between his conflicting loyalties to the state and his impartial intellectual pursuit.

Thus, Strauss universalizes the Jewish condition into the philosophic condition, as both are forced to adjust to the permanent state of political imperfection. The inherent tension with the world that the Jews experience in the diaspora is projected onto the philosopher who seeks to perpetuate his independent truth under alienated conditions. Strauss’s paradox of Jewish exile is extended to the paradox of philosophy – the conditions of exclusion and intolerance force the Jew and the philosopher to confront the radical imperfection of the world. It is this recognition of imperfectability of politics which Strauss demands of both Jew and philosopher that ultimately lies at the core of Strauss’s conservatism, which rejects the optimism of liberal-progressive thought.

Abraham Rubin, a first year CJL Graduate Fellow, is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature at the CUNY Graduate Center and a graduate teaching fellow in the English Department of City College.

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