Thursday, November 25, 2004

Review of Leo Strauss' Persecution and the Art of Writing

Sometimes one has a learning experience that really changes one's perspective. Reading Leo Strauss' Persecution and the Art of Writing is such an experience. I remember once reading a volume of David Halivni's Mekorot u' Mesorot and coming away transformed. The Talmud took on a whole new meaning. Each line of text was a different story than you originally suppose. It is right there in front of you waiting to be uncovered. Reading early biblical criticism, while not as easily convincing, is similar.

Persecution's goal is to teach us how to read in between the lines of certain texts. Those of us who study contemporary philosophy occasionally get a bit condescending when it comes to the medievals. (Unless he is reading too much in to them, which I doubt) Strauss reminds us that the medievals might have been backward, but they were not stupid. The medieval philosophers had to do their best work under the most adverse of conditions. Freedoms, such as we have now did not exist for most of recorded human history. To write and live one had to be careful. Censorship was ubiquitous. The geniuses who knew that they were writing for posterity needed to get certain messages out. Many of the subjects they needed to publicize might sound trivial now. But keep in mind that in the 16th century the soul's immortality was a VERY important topic of discussion for some of the top minds of the age.

Spinoza, Yehuda Halevi, and Maimonides all had things that they were trying desperately to say, but could not. Strauss shows us the secret to deciphering these authors. Strauss really reveals the genius of the authors he speaks about and renews my respect for their brilliance, and Strauss' too. Hume could not publish his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion in his lifetime as what he said was too controversial. It was controversial despite the fact that Hume never really tips his hand and tells us what he is really thinking. With Hume we see the first light of free thought. Before that we have secret messages embedded in texts which we have to uncover. The methodology varies from author to author, and Strauss doesn't give away too many secrets, but he definitely give us a new way to look at old philosophers.

This book was published some 50 years ago, but it is still as relevant today as it was then. Strauss, is by the way, taken to be one of the godfathers of the neocon movement. I suppose if one were to read between some lines here, one can see in the essay on Yehuda Halevi, why.

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