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Bernstein, Jeffrey. Leo Strauss on the Borders of Judaism, Philosophy, and History.

BERNSTEIN, Jeffrey. Leo Strauss on the Borders of Judaism, Philosophy, and History. New York: SUNY Press, 2015. xxix + 228 pp. Cloth, $85.00; paper, $24.95--Reading Leo Strauss can be an exciting experience. While it is true that Strauss does not appeal to everyone, some readers become captivated when they sense the importance (for their own lives) of the issues Strauss examines. Jeffery Bernstein is one of these readers, and there is a palpable excitement in his ambitious arguments throughout Leo Strauss: On the Borders of Judaism, Philosophy, and History. Bernstein's effort is so ambitious that it is difficult to summarize his complicated argument in a way that is useful for readers who are less familiar with Leo Strauss's contentious legacy and writings. What follows is only an overview of the most accessible highlights.

Bernstein's Strauss is an anachronistic philosopher. According to this view, contemporary students of philosophy are unable to appreciate fundamental issues that must be addressed in order to know whether a life guided by human reason is possible, or even desirable. The most important of these issues is the antagonism between philosophy and religion. The existence of a god (or gods) who issues commands to human beings is no longer taken very seriously, and the success of modern liberalism makes it less and less likely that religion will be viewed as anything more than a source of fanaticism for the foreseeable future. The current historical situation occludes from us what was so immediately obvious in former epochs: if there is a god who intervenes in human affairs, or disrupts the physical world, the human attempt to understand politics (or anything else) is impossible.

Expressed metaphorically, the contest between Jerusalem and Athens must be wrestled with before either the life of religious belief or that of philosophy can be justified or pursued. For readers of this review who are unfamiliar with Strauss, however, questioning the possibility of philosophy in this seemingly archaic way must sound bizarre. All the more so for those (both believers and nonbelievers) who fail to see any antagonism between matters of private conscience and the more certain grounds of reason that make peaceful political life possible. According to Bernstein, the situation in which the contest between Jerusalem and Athens is no longer seen as important is the result of the influence of those thinkers who compose the history of political philosophy. As Strauss himself came to see the importance of understanding the competing claims of reason and revelation, he was also faced with the difficult task of excavating or "reoriginating" the issue for others. According to Bernstein, at the same time Strauss was wrestling with the question himself, he had to make the anachronistic case for the possibility of a historical horizon that exceeded our own but had been forgotten.

If Bernstein is correct, Strauss's task of reoriginating the importance of the question of Jerusalem and Athens while simultaneously trying to answer the question for himself was very complicated. According to Strauss, each side of the debate must be examined on its own terms. To dismiss reason or philosophy on the evidence of tradition or scriptural authority would be nothing more than crude dogmatism. But to dismiss religion without giving full consideration to its enduring attraction, or simply asserting its irrationality, would be equally dogmatic and also a potential source of fanaticism. For this reason Bernstein frequently asserts that Strauss stands on the "border" between the two alternatives. If Strauss openly declared his reasons for choosing one or the other, the task of reoriginating the tension between reason and revelation would be sabotaged.

It is this explanation of Strauss's tactics of reorigination of the question of Jerusalem and Athens while simultaneously indicating his answer to the same question that lies at the heart of the book. Using the example of Strauss's lecture at Hebrew University entitled "What Is Political Philosophy?" along with alterations in subsequent printed versions under the same title, Bernstein suggests that Strauss employed the strategy of Plato's dialogues. This strategy, unlike the approach of an ordinary philosophical treatise, employs the use of an opening hint/frame/lens through which the remainder of the argument must be understood. If Bernstein is correct, "What is Political Philosophy?" is Strauss's disguised expression of his discovery and explication of heterodoxy in the writings of the Jewish thinker Maimonides.

These are only highlights of Bernstein's effort, but readers will have to decide for themselves whether the text of "What is Political Philosophy?" supports the intricate design and intentions he suggests. Because the essay itself is silent on the issues Bernstein attributes to it, many will find it implausible. On the other hand, the heterodox Maimonides presented is highly intriguing because of his similarity to the more controversial thought of Spinoza. If Bernstein is correct about the kinship of these two thinkers, academic philosophers would be forced to revisit the "medieval" Maimonides with the same systematic seriousness as his "rational" counterpart.--Rafael Major, University of North Texas
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Author:Major, Rafael
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2016
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