Leo Strauss & Moses Mendelssohn OR God & the Rights of Man (Martin Yaffe)


I don’t think you can understand Moses Mendelssohn without Leo Strauss, just not in the way that Strauss himself intended. That’s my takeaway after having just finished the introductions by Leo Strauss to the Moses Mendelssohn Jubiläumsaugabe, expertly edited by Martin Yaffe. The introductions are to the “Treatise on Evidence in Metaphysical Sciences,” Phädon, the Commentary on Moses Maimonides’ “Logical Terms,Morning Hours and To the Friends of Lessing, and other writings. The introductions by Strauss, brought together under a single cover, have that capacity to clarify that belongs to strong polemical writing combined with philosophical acumen. A genuine gift to which we owe Yaffe enormous thanks, the introductions teach us as much about their author, Leo Strauss and his conception of religion in the 1920s, while throwing enormous amounts of light on Mendelssohn in the 18th century in relation to ongoing debates about liberalism, politics, and religion.

The centerpiece of the volume is the combined introduction to Morning Hours and to To The Friends of Lessing. This particular piece is given to massive amounts of historical gossip and speculation re: Mendelssohn, Lessing, Jacobi, and the Reimarus siblings. This will be of interest to some, but I found it all too chatty, a boring slog. More interesting and most important is the philosophical fulcrum in these introductions and throughout the volume re: the centrality of common sense in Mendelssohn’s conceptual world view and the importance of the individual and of the body and particulars accorded by Mendelssohn in his philosophical writings.

Rather than call into question the synthesis of liberal Judaism and moderate Enlightenment, Strauss underscores their actual congruence in Mendelssohn’s thought. Based on common sense and lively representations, the liberal Judaism of Mendelssohn is moderate Enlightenment. But for Strauss, both forms of thought are equally dubious and come up wanting. With Jacobi, Strauss attacks the middle point, not fedeistic belief and not radical speculation, both of which commend themselves to Strauss as for Jacobi for being consistent. In this account, the true threat to reason is not belief but common sense, because common sense makes belief look self-evident (pp.126ff).

Perhaps not ironically, Strauss writes some of the most beautiful and insightful things that I think I have read anywhere about Mendelssohn –about this more below. The problem is that these things identified by Strauss about Mendelssohn are not meant as a compliment. While Strauss remains sympathetic to Mendelssohn as a person and probably as a Jew (yes, Strauss was sentimental that way), and while he writes critically about Jacobi’s tactical mendaciousness, he is going to argue here with Jacobi that what Strauss calls Mendelssohn’s “epicurean theism,” i.e. religion based on human happiness, is not “genuinely theological” (p.122).

The first problem for Strauss is theological. Mendelssohn is said to reduce God’s knowledge of finite beings to the status of representations, as “the ‘archetypes’ of all created things qua ‘images.’” As archetype, the status of “the I” is co-equal to God, which would threaten the strict transcendence that, for Strauss, is the hallmark of revelation. The second problem is political. In asserting the co-equality between God and the human person, Mendelssohn has reduced God’s “lordship over men” to that of “a constitutional monarch.” The human person is given “a certain equality of rights,” the rights of “a citizen in God’s state,” rights that are fundamental and can be held “over against the Chief of this State” (pp.122-5). For Strauss, the problem with Mendelssohn, which is the problem of the Enlightenment, which is the problem of liberal religion is sovereign power against the problem of “the rights of man.”

My problem, which I recognize as a problem, is that I don’t see the problem. Or rather, what makes Strauss a genius is shown here in the light he casts on his subject, namely Moses Mendelssohn. In other words, everything that Strauss says about Mendelssohn is true, except for the critical judgment he wants to bring against him on its basis. What I therefore take from Strauss is not what I think Strauss wanted to give me, this profound insight into Mendelssohn, my own sense of concord with a theory of religion at whose base rests the substantiality and autonomy of human personhood, an insistent human happiness, what Strauss calls Mendelssohn’s “softness” (pp.36-37) or “sentimentality,” this integration of religion and “the rights of man,” the very notion of a religious citizen, the citizen who has rights over and against his or her sovereign, rights over against God, and the privileging of benevolence over power, be that benevolence or power theological or political, the rejection of rank, and idea that a case of individual suffering can count “decisively” against the perfection of a cosmic or political order (p.154).

I don’t think this is the falsification of religion that Strauss thinks it is, at least not a falsification of Judaism, a certain kind of Judaism. In the Bablyonian Talmud, the rabbis call God by the attribute of mercy, not judgment. God is “The Merciful One.” One can go on and on finding prooftexts in the rabbinic and zoharic literatures that articulate a clear anthropocentric impulse in relation to God, sources that did not make it into Strauss’ conception of religion. There are the deference paid by God to the authority of the rabbis, the power of the kabbalists to sweeten and to annul divine decrees, and so on. The problem as always for me reading Strauss is that his conception of religion and Judaism are based too primarily upon the Bible, and perhaps too strongly upon the medieval tradition following Duns Scotus, those models of religion that place pre-eminence upon the will and power of God over against the wisdom and goodness of God. At any rate, the close association of supralapsarian Calvinism with the Bible and with Jewish tradition is a sloppy one (p.156). In the end, the image of religion is a peculiarly modern one that only seeks to dress itself up as ancient. At least in my estimation, that “genuine” religion can only be a hard thing based on power and acid judgment reflects a Weimar political theology that we are better off without.

But what then of Strauss’ claim against the common sense view of religion advanced by Mendelssohn, that it makes truths seem self-evident, when in fact they are not? It depends on how much clarity is demanded of theological principles. For Mendelssohn, it seemed, these were the subject of lively representations, of poetry and poetic sign-acts about which strict speculation has little of great import to say, one way or the other, things to which one has a philosophical right, even if one’s grasp of them remains, by their very nature, indistinct, philosophically, and impossible to verify. The “predicaments” he faced were purely political, relating to the vulnerable minority status of the Jewish people in 18th century Prussia and intellectual society. In contrast, religion stands out as a relatively “simple” thing. Mendelssohn was naïve, but in the technical sense that he would have meant, not in the sense that Strauss might have intended. For Mendelssohn, the naïve sign is the simple sign that only appears to be simple.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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