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Persecution and the Art of Writing

Persecution and the Art of Writing

by Leo Strauss, Strauss

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The essays collected in Persecution and the Art of Writing all deal with one problem—the relation between philosophy and politics. Here, Strauss sets forth the thesis that many philosophers, especially political philosophers, have reacted to the threat of persecution by disguising their most controversial and heterodox ideas.


The essays collected in Persecution and the Art of Writing all deal with one problem—the relation between philosophy and politics. Here, Strauss sets forth the thesis that many philosophers, especially political philosophers, have reacted to the threat of persecution by disguising their most controversial and heterodox ideas.

Editorial Reviews

Paperback reprint. Originally published by the Free Press, New York, 1952. All these essays deal with the relation between philosophy and politics. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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Persecution and the Art of Writing

By Leo Strauss

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1980 Miriam Strauss
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-77711-5



The subject matter of the following essays may be said to fall within the province of the sociology of knowledge. Sociology of knowledge does not limit itself to the study of knowledge proper. Being critical in regard to its own basis, it studies impartially everything that pretends to be knowledge as well as genuine knowledge. Accordingly, one should expect that it would devote some attention also to the pursuit of genuine knowledge of the whole, or to philosophy. Sociology of philosophy would thus appear to be a legitimate subdivision of sociology of knowledge. The following essays may be said to supply material useful for a future sociology of philosophy.

One cannot help wondering why there does not exist today a sociology of philosophy. It would be rude to suggest that the founders of the sociology of knowledge were unaware of philosophy or did not believe in its possibility. What one can safely say is that the philosopher appeared to them, eventually or from the beginning, as a member of a motley crowd which they called the intellectuals or the Sages. Sociology of knowledge emerged in a society which took for granted the essential harmony between thought and society or between intellectual progress and social progress. It was more concerned with the relation of the different types of thought to different types of society than with the fundamental relation of thought as such to society as such. It did not see a grave practical problem in that fundamental relation. It tended to see in the different philosophies, exponents of different societies or classes or ethnic spirits. It failed to consider the possibility that all philosophers form a class by themselves, or that what unites all genuine philosophers is more important than what unites a given philosopher with a particular group of nonphilosophers. This failure can be traced directly to the inadequacy of the historical information on which the edifice of sociology of knowledge was erected. The first-hand knowledge at the disposal of the early sociologists of knowledge was limited, for all practical purposes, to what they knew of nineteenth and early twentieth century Western thought.

To realize the necessity of a sociology of philosophy, one must turn to other ages, if not to other climates. The present writer happened to come across phenomena whose understanding calls for a sociology of philosophy, while he was studying the Jewish and Islamic philosophy of the Middle Ages.

There is a striking contrast between the level of present-day understanding of Christian scholasticism and that of present-day understanding of Islamic and Jewish medieval philosophy. This contrast is ultimately due to the fact that the foremost students of Christian scholasticism believe in the immediate philosophic relevance of their theme, whereas the foremost students of Islamic and Jewish medieval philosophy tend to regard their subject as only of historical interest. The rebirth of Christian scholasticism has given rise to a philosophic interest in Islamic and Jewish medieval philosophy: Averroes and Maimonides appeared to be the Islamic and Jewish counterparts of Thomas Aquinas. But from the point of view of Christian scholasticism, and indeed from the point of view of any position which accepts the very principle of faith, Islamic and Jewish medieval philosophy are likely to appear inferior to Christian scholasticism and at best only trail blazers for the approach characteristic of the latter. If Islamic and Jewish medieval philosophy must be understood properly, they must be of philosophic and not merely of antiquarian interest, and this in turn requires that one ceases to regard them as counterparts of Christian scholasticism.

To recognize the fundamental difference between Christian scholasticism on the one hand, and Islamic and Jewish medieval philosophy on the other, one does well to start from the most obvious difference, the difference in regard to the literary sources. This difference is particularly striking in the case of practical or political philosophy. The place that is occupied in Christian scholasticism by Aristotle's Politics, Cicero, and the Roman Law, is occupied in Islamic and Jewish philosophy by Plato's Republic and his Laws. Whereas Plato's Republic and Laws were recovered by the West only in the fifteenth century, they had been translated into Arabic in the ninth century. Two of the most famous Islamic philosophers wrote commentaries on them: Farabi on the Laws, and Averroes on the Republic. The difference mentioned implied a difference, not only in regard to the content of political philosophy, but, above all, in regard to its importance for the whole of philosophy. Farabi, whom Maimonides, the greatest Jewish thinker of the Middle Ages, regarded as the greatest among the Islamic philosophers, and indeed as the greatest philosophic authority after Aristotle, was so much inspired by Plato's Republic that he presented the whole of philosophy proper within a political framework. That of Farabi's works which Maimonides recommended especially, consists of two parts, the first discussing God and the universe, and the second discussing the city; the author entitled it The Political Governments. A parallel work composed by him bears the title The Principles of the Opinions of the People of the Virtuous City; it is called in the manuscripts that I have seen "a political book." It is significant that Farabi was definitely less known to Christian scholasticism than were Avicenna and Averroes.

To understand these obvious differences, one must take into consideration the essential difference between Judaism and Islam on the one hand and Christianity on the other. Revelation as understood by Jews and Muslims has the character of Law (torah, shari'a) rather than of Faith. Accordingly, what first came to the sight of the Islamic and Jewish philosophers in their reflections on Revelation was not a creed or a set of dogmas, but a social order, if an all-comprehensive order, which regulates not merely actions but thoughts or opinions as well. Revelation thus understood lent itself to being interpreted by loyal philosophers as the perfect law, the perfect political order. Being philosophers, the falasifa, as they were called, attempted to arrive at a perfect understanding of the phenomenon of Revelation. Yet Revelation is intelligible to man only to the extent to which it takes place through the intermediacy of secondary causes, or to the extent to which it is a natural phenomenon. The medium through which God reveals Himself to man is a prophet, i.e., a human being. The falasifa attempted therefore to understand the process of Revelation as essentially related to, or as identical with, a peculiar "connatural" perfection, and in fact, the supreme perfection, of man. Being loyal philosophers, the falasifa were compelled to justify their pursuit of philosophy before the tribunal of the Divine Law. Considering the importance which they attached to philosophy, they were thus driven to interpret Revelation as the perfect political order which is perfect precisely because it lays upon all sufficiently equipped men the duty to devote their lives to philosophy. For this purpose they had to assume that the founder of the perfect order, the prophetic lawgiver, was not merely a statesman of the highest order but at the same time a philosopher of the highest order. They had to conceive of the prophetic lawgiver as a philosopher-king or as the supreme perfection of the philosopher-king. Philosopher-kings, and communities governed by philosopher-kings, were however the theme not of Aristotelian but of Platonic politics. And divine laws, which prescribe not merely actions but opinions about the divine things as well, were the theme of Plato's Laws in particular. It is therefore not surprising that, according to Avicenna, the philosophic discipline which deals with prophecy is political philosophy or political science, and the standard work on prophecy is Plato's Laws. For the specific function of the prophet, as Averroes says, or of the greatest of all prophets, as Maimonides suggests, is legislation of the highest type.

Plato's Laws were known in the period under consideration as "Plato's rational laws (nomoi)." The falasifa accepted then the notion that there are "rational laws." Yet they rejected the notion of "rational commandments." The latter notion had been employed by a school of what one may call Islamic theology (kalam), and had been adopted by certain Jewish thinkers. It corresponded to the Christian notion of "the natural law," which may be identified with "the law of reason" and "the moral law." By rejecting the notion of "rational commandments," the falasifa implied that the principles of morality are not rational, but "probable" or "generally accepted." "The rational laws (nomoi) " which they admitted, are distinguished from "the rational commandments," or the natural law, by the fact that they do not have obligatory character. The Stoic natural law teaching, which was transmitted to the Western world chiefly through Cicero and some Roman lawyers, did not influence the practical or political philosophy of the falasifa.

The philosophic intransigence of the falasifa is not sufficiently appreciated in the accepted interpretations of their teachings. This is partly due to the reticence of the falasifa themselves. The best clues to their intentions are found in the writings of men like Yehuda Halevi and Maimonides. The value of the testimony of these great men may be thought to be impaired by the fact that they opposed thefalasifa. Yet at least some writings of Farabi confirm the interpretation which Halevi and Maimonides suggest. In the present state of our knowledge it is impossible to say to what extent Farabi's successors accepted his views in regard to the crucial point. But there can be no doubt that those views acted as a leaven as long as philosophy exercised an influence on Islamic and Jewish thought.

Farabi expressed his thought most clearly in his short treatise on the philosophy of Plato. The Plato forms the second and shortest part of a tripartite work which apparently was entitled On the Purposes of Plato and of Aristotle and which is quoted by Averroes as The Two Philosophies. The third part, which has not yet been edited, deals with the philosophy of Aristotle. In the first part (On the Attainment of Happiness), Farabi discusses the human things which are required for bringing about the complete happiness of nations and of cities. The chief requirement proves to be philosophy, or rather the rule of philosophers, for "the meaning of Philosopher, First Leader, King, Legislator, and Imam is one and the same." The Platonic origin of the guiding thesis is obvious and, in addition, pointed out by the author. He concludes the first part with the remark that philosophy as previously described stems from Plato and Aristotle, who both "have given us philosophy" together with "the ways toward it and the way toward its introduction after it has been blurred or destroyed," and that, as will become clear from the presentation of the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle in the two subsequent parts, the purpose of Plato and of Aristotle was one and the same. Two points in Farabi's On the Purposes of Plato and of Aristotle strike one most. The work owes its origin to the concern with the restoration of philosophy "after it has been blurred or destroyed"; and it is more concerned with the purpose common to Plato and Aristotle than with the agreement or disagreement of the results of their investigations. What Farabi regarded as the purpose of the two philosophers, and hence what he regarded as the sound purpose simply, appears with all the clarity which one can reasonably desire, from his summary of Plato's philosophy, and from no other source. This purpose is likely to prove the latent purpose of all falasifa proper. Farabi's Plato would thus prove to be the clue par excellence to the falsafa as such.

According to Farabi, Plato started his inquiry with the question regarding the essence of man's perfection or of his happiness, and he realized that man's happiness consists in a certain science and in a certain way of life. The science in question proves to be the science of the essence of every being, and the art which supplies that science proves to be philosophy. As for the way of life in question, the art which supplies it proves to be the royal or political art. Yet the philosopher and the king prove to be identical. Accordingly, philosophy by itself is not only necessary but sufficient for producing happiness: philosophy does not need to be supplemented by something else, or by something that is thought to be higher in rank than philosophy, in order to produce happiness. The purpose of Plato, or of Aristotle, as Farabi conceived of it, is sufficiently revealed in this seemingly conventional praise of philosophy.

The praise of philosophy is meant to rule out any claims of cognitive value which may be raised on behalf of religion in general and of revealed religion in particular. For the philosophy on which Farabi bestows his unqualified praise, is the philosophy of the pagans Plato and Aristotle. In his Enumeration of the Sciences, he presents the "Islamic sciences" (fiqh and kalam) as corollaries to political science. By this very fact, the pursuits in question cease to be Islamic; they become the arts of interpreting and of defending any divine law or any positive religion. Whatever obscurity there might seem to be in the Enumeration, every ambiguity is avoided in the Plato. Through the mouth of Plato, Farabi declares that religious speculation, and religious investigation of the beings, and the religious syllogistic art, do not supply the science of the beings, in which man's highest perfection consists, whereas philosophy does supply it. He goes so far as to present religious knowledge as the lowest step on the ladder of cognitive pursuits, as inferior even to grammar and to poetry. The purpose of the Plato as a whole makes it clear that this verdict is not affected if one substitutes the religious knowledge available in Farabi's time for the religious knowledge available in Plato's time.

At the beginning of the treatise On the Attainment of Happiness with which he prefaces his summaries of the philosophies of Plato and of Aristotle, Farabi employs the distinction between "the happiness of this world in this life" and "the ultimate happiness in the other life" as a matter of course. In the Plato, which is the second and therefore the least exposed part of a tripartite work, the distinction of the two kinds of happiness is completely dropped. What this silence means becomes clear from the fact that in the whole Plato (which contains summaries of the Gorgias, the Phaedrus, the Phaedo, and the Republic), there is no mention of the immortality of the soul: Farabi's Plato silently rejects Plato's doctrine of a life after death.

Farabi could go so far in the Plato, not merely because that treatise is the least exposed and the shortest part of a larger. work, but also because it sets forth explicitly the views of another man. As has been mentioned, he treats differently the two kinds of happiness in On the Attainment of Happiness and in the Plato; and he treats religious knowledge somewhat differently in the Enumeration of the Sciences and in the Plato. Proceeding in accordance with the same rule, he pronounces more or less orthodox views concerning the life after death in The Virtuous Religious Community and The Political Governments, i.e., in works in which he speaks in his own name. More precisely, in The Virtuous Religious Community, he pronounces simply orthodox views, and in The Political Governments he pronounces views which, if heretical, could nonetheless still be considered tolerable. But in his commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics he declares that there is only the happiness of this life, and that all divergent statements are based on "ravings and old women's tales."

Farabi avails himself then of the specific immunity of the commentator or of the historian in order to speak his mind concerning grave matters in his "historical" works, rather than in the works in which he speaks in his own name. Yet could not Farabi, as a commentator, have expounded, without a muttering of dissent, such views as he rejected as a man? Could he not have been attracted, as a student of philosophy, by what he abhorred as a believer? Could his mind not have been of the type that is attributed to the Latin Averroists? It almost suffices to state this suspicion in order to see that it is unfounded. The Latin Averroists gave a most literal interpretation of extremely heretical teachings. But Farabi did just the reverse: he gave an extremely unliteral interpretation of a relatively tolerable teaching. Precisely as a mere commentator of Plato, Farabi was compelled to embrace the doctrine of a life after death. His flagrant deviation from the letter of Plato's teaching, or his refusal to succumb to Plato's charms, proves sufficiently that he rejected the belief in a happiness different from the happiness of this life, or the belief in another life. His silence about the immortality of the soul in a treatise designed to present the philosophy of Plato "from its beginning to its end" places beyond any reasonable doubt the inference that the statements asserting the immortality of the soul, which occur in some of his other writings, must be regarded as accommodations to the accepted views.


Excerpted from Persecution and the Art of Writing by Leo Strauss. Copyright © 1980 Miriam Strauss. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Meet the Author

Leo Strauss's contributions to political philosophy include Natural Right and History, Platonic Political Philosophy, and The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism, all published by the University of Chicago Press.

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