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LEO STRAUSS AND THE RECOVERY OF MEDIEVAL POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY By Joshua Parens. New York: University of Rochester Press, 2016. xii + 191pp.

The recovery of medieval political philosophy that Leo Strauss is said to have effected concerns principally Maimonides and Alfarabi. Christian thinkers are excluded. The reason given is that whereas Christianity is marked more by belief than action, Islam and Judaism are marked more by action than belief. This difference is due to the importance of law in both, Christian canon law being no equivalent. The varying status of law explains the fact that theology has pride of place in Christianity, whereas legal study (Talmud, fiqh) does in Judaism and Islam. A few chapters in this new book by Joshua Parens discuss not only this difference, but also the erroneous interpretations that can arise and that have arisen when medieval Jewish and Muslim thinkers are interpreted with the methods and presuppositions applicable to the study of medieval Christian thought or scholasticism.

Scholasticism can mean the view that philosophy and revelation are not incompatible: revelation (Christian revelation) is the crowning grace that crowns the head of philosophy. Revelation completes philosophy, which can be put in its service. What is more, the (Christian) theology of revelation can serve as a basis or ground for theorizing about practical matters. Revealed truth is both the crowning grace and the that-from-which of Christianity.

Not so for Maimonides and Al-Farabi. Both stand opposed to the possible scholastic harmonization of philosophy and revelation; neither sees revelation as the perfection of reason or grounds practical doctrines in revealed dogma as theoretical truth. This is perhaps most apparent concerning providence: whereas "providence is a very high theme of the theoretical portion of sacred doctrine" among Christians, "particular providence is considered under the aegis of political science in Alfarabi and Maimonides," writes Parens.

Among the merits of Strauss's studies, for Parens, is that Strauss indicates how and why this opposition to harmonization is expressed. When a religious-legal or theologico-political order is all embracing or offers a comprehensive way of life, as is the case in Islam and Judaism, according to the general picture offered by Strauss, a decision in favor of philosophy as a way of life may necessitate a certain taciturnity or reticence in the presentation of one's thoughts. Parens elaborates on Strauss's reasons why these medievals had recourse to such reticent or esoteric writing, linking the need for reticence to the fundamental difference between dogma revelation and legal revelation discussed above.

One of the main points the book makes about Maimonides is that his Guide is "in its esoteric depth a work of political science or philosophy," or that political science is "the true science of the law," the stated subject matter of the work. The contrary position, the main opponent to this view, is that the guide is a work of "enlightened kalam" Kalam is a defense of religious teaching against the philosophical teachings undermining it, a defense Maimonides criticized for its repudiation of rationality, its denial of the nature of existence. Enlightened kalam would be a defense of religious teaching that is compatible with philosophical truth. In Maimonides, this defense is not a theoretical harmonization. Instead, his "true science of the law" seems to Parens to comprise "not only a form of dialectical theology but also a philosophic exploration of the aims of the Law, that is, a political philosophy," such that, "there may be no more profound exploration of the relation between human being, city, and cosmos than the Guide of the Perplexed."

One of the main points the book makes about Alfarabi is that he is not the neo-Platonist he is sometimes made out to be. The apparent neo-Platonism in Alfarabi is upon closer inspection an exoteric or surface doctrine, concealing his true position. The true position does not take for granted a perfectly ordered cosmic whole to be modeled by a political order thought to correspond to it, so that the cosmic order would be the foundation for the political one. Alfarabi "highlights failures within the apparently hierarchical ordering of things, and these failures are in turn linked to and support his denial that theoretical science provides the ground of practical science." Indeed, "it is not much of an exaggeration to say that Alfarabi obscures Aristotle's divide between theoretical and practical science in nearly all of his writings." As we saw, that is in part because of the specific place of law in Islam, because of the theological-political character of the notion of divine law: "the character of the revealed Law precludes the rigorous application of an Aristotelian wall of separation between theoretical and practical science." The figure of the philosopher-king as prophet-legislator unites Alfarabi and Maimonides in breaking down that wall of separation.

I see Parens as having four major goals: (1) to convince readers who take the Guide to be a work of "Jewish philosophy" that, first, the term "Jewish philosophy" obscures the crucial question of the relation between Judaism and philosophy--for example, through implicit scholasticization--and, second, that the proper understanding of those two elements depends on, or hearkens back to, a view about philosophy and law that Strauss called "Platonic political philosophy"; (2) to provide sufficient evidence to conclude that the apparent neo-Platonism of some of Alfarabi's texts is likely a facade designed to hide the fact that for him, as for Maimonides, political philosophy is first philosophy; (3) to encourage at least some readers begin to see beyond or through the question of the harmonization of theology and philosophy among scholastics and medievals to the broader question of "facile harmonizations of thought and society," about which Parens writes as follows:
Although one might assume that the way to achieve what is best
politically is to strive for just such a harmonization, it seems more
ikely that such harmonizations only blind one to the depth of disorder
and disorganization to which human affairs are prone. Among other
things, without a sufficient awareness of the depth of the gap between
philosophy and city, thinkers grow complacent about how much human
effort is required to secure even a modicum of political well-being;

(4) to expound on and to support Strauss's studies as especially perceptive on all three points, especially the first two, but indirectly the third, too.

I am too partial to Strauss from the outset to evaluate neutrally whether Parens has accomplished the first two goals: that is best judged by those he has endeavored to persuade or convince, those reading Alfarabi as Neoplatonism and Maimonides as Jewish philosophy. Parens attains the forth aim throughout. It is to be hoped that the third aim, though understated, does not go unnoticed or unappreciated.

Michael Millerman

University of Toronto
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Author:Millerman, Michael
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2017

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