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Persecution and the Art of Critique: Leo Strauss between Secularism and Religion

In his 1983 essay ‘Secular Criticism,’ Edward Said claimed that criticism is “always situated,” “skeptical,” and “secular,” suggesting that the critic always acknowledges that she is situated in an existing cultural and social context, while maintaining a skeptical distance from religious commitments (Said, 1983: 26). Questioning Said’s characterization, the anthropologist Talal Asad has asked just what Said meant when he called criticism “secular” (Asad, 2009). What kinds of judgments or convictions does a “secular” critical practice hope to produce, either in the critic or in her audience? Rather than simply deny Said’s claim, Asad hoped to show that a practice of “secular criticism” like Said’s necessarily has to replace religious grounds for “conviction” with non-religious ones. ‘Secular criticism’ thus rests on a certain understanding of the faculty of judgment and, furthermore, on a set of assumptions about the way judgment functions in communal, rather than simply personal, contexts – assuming, of course that a work of criticism is to have meaning for anyone but its author. Indeed, Asad sought to show that Said’s ‘secular criticism’ was a descendent of the Enlightenment notion of critique articulated by Immanuel Kant in the essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’ and analyzed by Michel Foucault in the essay ‘What is Critique?’ For Foucault and Asad, both Kant’s ambitious projects of philosophical critique and our smaller academic-professional projects of critique, are not prepared for a vacuum but rather for a public sphere of readers or listeners. If we call into question the secular nature of the public sphere, we necessarily call into question the modes of critique deployed therein.

Asad has articulated his critique of Said’s ‘Secular Criticism’ in the context of post-9/11 conversations about religion and secularism. The author of an ‘anthropology of secularism’ that questions the de facto assumption that secularism is a ‘normal’ and ‘healthy’ form for modernity to take, Asad has been associated with a certain Left defense of religion, and with a refusal to attack theocracy merely because it deviates from secular norms of governance. However, it should be both shocking and instructive to observe that the central premise of Asad’s ‘anthropology of secularism’ was anticipated by the early work of the conservative historian of political philosophy, Leo Strauss (1899-1973). Beginning in the late 1920s Strauss called for an investigation of the prejudices inherent in the post-Enlightenment, secular West, which (in his view) thought of itself as ‘beyond prejudice’ because it had left religion behind and embraced science. Like Asad, Strauss observed a confrontation between religious and secular concerns – but his world was that of Weimar Germany, where the modern language of ‘political theology’ was forged in a crucible of political radicalism and crisis, and where Jews like Strauss could observe anti-Semitic politicians garnering more and more support. During the Weimar years, the Enlightenment’s legacy seemed under attack both within the academy – as so many lost faith in neo-Kantiansm – and outside it, as Germans at all points on the political spectrum lost faith in liberalism. It is easy to see how, in such a climate, Strauss could have grown interested not only in the practice of critique but in the relation of critique, which he understood as a modern practice, to a secular modernity.

The product of Strauss’s investigation of secularist prejudice was the 1930 volume ‘Spinoza’s Critique of Religion’, a dense tome that sought to understand the gesture with which modernity claimed to have conquered and moved beyond tradition and its prejudices: the ‘critique of religion’ (Strauss, 1962). On its most basic level this book, which Strauss wrote while a junior researcher at Berlin’s Akademie für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, was an investigation of Baruch Spinoza’s critiques of both Christianity and Judaism, represented by the figures of John Calvin and Moses Maimonides. Strauss took Spinoza’s critique as a founding moment of the Enlightenment’s view of traditional religion, and thus a crucial document to investigate if one wished to accept or reject the Enlightenment critique of religion with a clear conscience. As Eugene Sheppard has pointed out, Spinoza also served a crucial symbolic function for Strauss because of his status as an outcast, banished from Amsterdam’s Jewish community because of his views. His alienation must have appeared, to Strauss, as a prefiguration of the condition of German Jews who had grown away from their traditions (Sheppard, 2006: 35).

Strauss’s supervisor at the Akademie, the neo-Kantian philosopher and historian of Jewish philosophy Julius Guttmann, hoped that Strauss’s book would contribute to the historical treatment of Jewish thought by illuminating the links between Spinoza’s ‘Bible Science’ – his view of the Bible as an artifact fashioned by human hands that could best be understood through historical means – and the Wissenschaft des Judentums (literally, the ‘science of Judaism’) tradition, which had emerged in Germany in the early 19th century. However, as he researched and wrote, Strauss grew increasingly critical of the historicist and ‘scientific’ approach to Jewish thought that Guttmann promoted, which seemed to deprive Judaism of its religious and political content by treating it merely as a set of cultural traditions that developed over time. He rebelled against his teacher. While ‘Spinoza’s Critique of Religion’ is a scholarly work that reconstructs Spinoza’s specific judgments on Maimonides and Calvin, assesses Spinoza’s view of the social function of religion and describes how Spinoza tried to make Biblical scholarship into a ‘positive science,’ it is also an exploration of the significance of critique as a foundational event in the establishment of modernity. Indeed, ‘Spinoza’s Critique of Religion’ should be understood as an attempt to challenge the necessity of critique’s secularism. Strauss turned a skeptical eye towards precisely the method that Guttmann’s philosophical inspiration, Kant, had employed to such great effect in his series of late 18th-century Critiques.

At the heart the book was a comparison between Spinoza and Maimonides, two Jewish philosophers of different eras with very different attitudes towards the relation between philosophy and Jewish law. Through an examination of their views on the relationship between philosophy and religion, Strauss came to understand them as exponents of modern and medieval versions of philosophical rationalism, with different understandings of the role reason should play within the political community. Whereas Spinoza and other figures of the modern Enlightenment placed reason within the public square and tried to show the public that reason could serve their interests, the ‘medieval Enlightenment’ of Maimonides sought to protect the public from the potential instability that skeptical reason could produce. Reason, thought Strauss’s Maimonides, tended to lead community members to question the very traditions that preserved harmony on every level of society.

In this juxtaposition of Spinoza and Maimonides, the young Strauss of ‘Spinoza’s Critique of Religion’ anticipated the mature Strauss of the famous ‘Persecution and the Art of Writing,’ who would claim that Maimonides (and so many other philosophers) wrote multi-layered texts with both ‘exoteric’ and ‘esoteric’ dimensions, so that his philosophical lessons would only reveal themselves fully to the right readers (Strauss, 1952). Strauss, troubled by the modern Enlightenment’s flagrant disregard for the effects of knowledge on the public at large, tended to favor the medieval approach, which he praised for its careful attention to the effects of rationalism on the social order. Implicit in Strauss’s discussion of medieval and modern rationalisms, was the claim that Spinoza’s rationalism – the rationalism of Spinoza’s critique of religion – was an inherently public practice. As Strauss would later suggest, Spinoza was one of the intellectual founders of liberal modernity, and his critique of religion was central to that founding.

In contrast to Spinoza, who disregarded the communal needs of the Jewish people wherever they conflicted with the needs of science, Strauss’s Maimonides was aware of the need to curb philosophy’s scope when it threatened the legal (and thus political) authority of Judaism. As Strauss said of the ‘Great Eagle’ of medieval Jewish thought,

“His argumentation takes its course, his disputes take place, within the context of Jewish life, and for that context. He defends the context of Jewish life which is threatened by the philosophers in so far as it is threatened by them.” (Strauss, 1962: 164)

Interestingly Strauss never referred to Maimonides as having had a ‘critique,’ reserving that term for those moderns –like Spinoza and like himself– who either accepted, or were forced to accept, a division between religion and the activities of rational science. In his view, science as practiced by natural philosophers, and even ‘Bible Science’ as practiced by the historicist exponents of the Wissenschaft des Judentums, strikes a pose of neutrality with regards to the needs of surrounding political communities. Unlike Julius Guttmann, Strauss took a radical stance on the political meanings of Jewish Studies scholarship. In this he followed from one of his most important influences, the Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig (who died in 1929, while Strauss was revising ‘Spinoza’s Critique of Religion’). For Rosenzweig, all efforts in Jewish Studies had an explicitly political valence, contributing either to the regeneration of Jewish cultural life in Europe or to the continued attempt to assimilate, which always resulted in the abandonment of Jewish tradition. Thus for Strauss there could be no critique – not even his own critique of Spinoza – that was truly neutral with regard to the fate of the Jewish people in the Diaspora.

The conservative Jew Leo Strauss was no friend to the European modernity that the critique of religion had helped to establish. To his mind, the crisis of Weimar politics was not an exceptional circumstance but rather a confirmation of the modernity’s failures. Nevertheless, he was particularly skeptical about the secular liberalism of the Weimar Republic, because it seemed to have failed Germany Jewry. A member of the Zionist youth organization Blau-Weiss until his mid-20s, Strauss developed sharp criticisms of the ‘assimilationist’ dimensions of the liberal emancipation of the Jews – the process by which Jews had been slowly gaining civil rights since the eighteenth century. In his view, the Jews were granted the freedom to participate in European life not as Jews but simply as ‘men.’ Their emancipation had been contingent on their appearing in public not as Jews but rather as ‘Europeans,’ universal client citizens of their adoptive nation-states whose particular identities could not interfere with citizenship. The result was that Jewishness could no longer be a political condition and instead had to become a private ‘confession’ akin to Protestantism: German Jews, as Strauss said, had to become ‘Germans of the Jewish Faith.’ The communal dimension of Jewish life and the political nature of Judaism qua religion, had to suffer in order for Jewish modernity to flourish. Thus the arguments Strauss explored in ‘Spinoza’s Critique of Religion’, while technical, had enormous political implications beyond the discursive universes of philosophy, Biblical studies and Jewish history. Understanding Spinoza’s challenge to religion as one of the foundational moments of liberalism, Strauss also saw it as foundational for the modern Jewish condition – a condition that he understood to be endangered by the weakness of the very liberalism that had brought it into being. The liberal state, thought Strauss, was constitutionally incapable of defending its citizens against discrimination because it recognized the existence of a private social sphere in which it could not interfere.

The comparison of Spinoza and Maimonides in ‘Spinoza’s Critique of Religion’ was intended to highlight one aspect of Judaism that, in Strauss’s view, both historicism and liberalism threatened: religious revelation as a source of political legislation. On a similar note but much later in his career, Strauss would write “Scientific knowledge of Judaism is purchased at the price of belief in the authority of revelation.” (Strauss, 1987: 45). However, this statement was not intended to signal his own preference for religion, but rather to pass a verdict on the ‘scientific’ approach to Judaism: Leo Strauss was not a religious Jew, but a self-identified atheist who nevertheless believed that there was something admirable to be found in the political dimensions of Judaism. It was only by questioning the critique of religion that such an understanding could be revived. Interestingly, Strauss’s very antipathy towards secularism may have pushed him away from the secularist Zionist organizations of his youth: During the period when he worked on ‘Spinoza’s Critique of Religion’ Strauss’s activities within Blau-Weiss decreased, and eventually he withdrew his membership altogether, dissatisfied with Zionism’s inattention to religion as a binding agent in Jewish life.

While Strauss saw ‘Spinoza’s Critique of Religion’ as a secularist gesture, and one that decoupled religion and reason from one another, he nevertheless did not assume that critiques must be secular. The force of ‘Spinoza’s Critique of Religion’ goes towards placing secular rationality on the same footing as religion – that is, each is based on ‘prejudice’ of one kind or another. Critique as Strauss practiced it, in writing his book, is the technique of becoming transparent about prejudices – both one’s own and those of the social world. Strauss’s book intends to show that even the Enlightenment’s tribunals of critical reason could be called into question, and that while critique might not be the chosen tool of the advocates of Orthodoxy, it could be used to draw them to the table for conversation.

Strauss himself has offered us powerful clues to his understanding of critique in a late reflection on the meaning of his first book. In the 1962 Preface to the English translation of ‘Spinoza’s Critique of Religion’ Strauss said that he had been “a young Jew born and raised in Germany who found himself in the grip of the theologico-political predicament.” (Strauss, 1962: 1) The term ‘theologico-political’ referred not only to Spinoza’s ‘Tractatus Theologico-Politicus’, but also to Carl Schmitt’s famous 1922 ‘Political Theology’, which Strauss knew well – in 1932 he would publish a critique of Schmitt’s 1928 ‘The Concept of the Political,’ and the two would maintain a correspondence that was, as Heinrich Meier has shown, crucial for their intellectual development (Meier, 1995). While they differed in many crucial respects – Strauss favoring political philosophy over political theology – they nevertheless both drew from the same well of animus against Enlightenment thought. Strauss may not have shared Schmitt’s view that all political concepts are basically secularized theological concepts, but he did share a less extreme version of Schmitt’s intuition. John McCormick refers to Strauss’s position as ‘Biblical Atheism,’ the view that regardless of the non-existence of the Divine, the disposition of fear and awe invoked by the Bible nevertheless had social and political uses (McCormick, 2009). Spinoza’s secularist critique of religion, thought Strauss, had helped produce a political order that could never establish itself as legitimate. Strauss did not defend religion itself, much less theocracy, but he did believe that religion supplies structures of experience that political life may not be able to do without. Michel Foucault famously called Kant’s version of critique “the art of not being governed so much.” (Foucault, 1997: 45) The young Strauss, on the other hand, worried that Enlightenment rationality – which the practice of critique had helped to usher in – produced forms of governance that might hold their own weaknesses.


Asad, T. (2009) ‘Is Critique Secular?’, in T. Asad, J. Butler, S. Mahmood and W. Brown. Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech. (Forthcoming 2009) Berkeley: University of California Press.

Foucault, M. (1997) ‘What is Critique?’, pp. 23-83 in M. Foucault The Politics of Truth. New York: Semiotext(e).

McCormick, J. (2009) ‘Authority Beyond the Bounds of Mere Reason: A Political-Theological Sketch of the Schmitt-Strauss Exchange’, in L.V. Kaplan and R.J. Koshar (Eds.) The Weimar Moment: Liberalism, Political Theology, and Law. (Forthcoming 2009) Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Meier, H. (1995) Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss: the Hidden Dialogue. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Said, E. (1983) The World, The Text and the Critic. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sheppard, E. (2006) Leo Strauss and the Politics of Exile: the Formation of a Weimar Conservative Jew. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press.

Strauss, L. (1952) Persecution and the Art of Writing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Strauss, L. (1962) Spinoza’s Critique of Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Strauss, L. (1987) Philosophy and Law. Fred Baumann, trans. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.

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