<div><div> <br> <h2>CHAPTER 1</h2> <p><b>Exotericism Exposed: Letters to Jacob Klein</b></p> <br> <p>Strauss's studies in the history of philosophy were already well advanced in December 193 when he traveled to the United States to find a teaching position. He had completed his Ph.D. seventeen years earlier with a dissertation on Friedrich Jacobi. He had written a book on Spinoza in 1925–28 that contained a history of atheism in Western philosophy. He had been an editor of the works of Moses Mendelssohn, which required close acquaintance with the debates of the German Enlightenment involving Jacobi, Lessing, Kant, Leibniz, and others. In the 1930s he made himself a specialist in Jewish and Islamic medieval philosophy, publishing a book in 1935 on Maimonides and his Islamic predecessors. And he made himself an authority on Hobbes, on whom he wrote two books, one of which he had translated into English and published in 1936. In all three published books, classical philosophy played an important role, with Plato serving as a standard in the Maimonides and Hobbes books. In this work on the history of philosophy Strauss had often encountered the fact and vocabulary of exoteric writing, and after writing <i>Philosophy and Law</i> he had learned still more about it, especially in its appearance in Maimonides and the Islamic philosophers. But January 1938 marks a turning point in the life of an already established scholar in his thirty-ninth year, for only then did Strauss recover exotericism in its full radicality—and report it with complete candor in the outspoken, unvarnished detail of private letters spread across almost two years to his best friend who also shared his intellectual interests, Jacob Klein.</p> <p>Strauss's letters to Klein on the recovery of exotericism deserve to become famous. They surge with the exhilaration, yes, the hilarity of serial revelations spread across twenty-two months of precarious living. They contain, in Heinrich Meier's metaphor, "a whole series of philosophic supernovas" that can now serve Strauss's reader as orienting points for renewed study of his writings and of the figures in the history of philosophy they mention. More than anything else Strauss wrote, these letters, taken collectively, provide indisputable evidence of his mastery as a reader and of his own practice of exoteric writing: the letters show what he learned, the later writings show how he chose to present it.</p> <p>Strauss and Klein had been friends since meeting at the University of Marburg in 1920 when both turned twenty-one, and they continued their friendship in Berlin after Strauss was hired as a researcher at the Akademie der Wissenschaft des Judentums in 1925. After Strauss left Germany in 1932 they maintained an extensive correspondence. Strauss's letters on exotericism begin with his first letter from New York, on January 20, 1938. He had traveled alone from Cambridge, England, in late 193 to scout firsthand the opportunities in the United States for an almost-forty-year-old German Jewish scholar who had published many books and articles but never held a teaching position at a university. Amid the rigors of travel and failure to find encouraging leads for a full-time position for himself and also for Klein, Strauss reports that "Maimonides is getting more and more exciting." Maimonides had been a subject of Strauss's study at least since his focus on Spinoza's <i>Theologico-Political Treatise</i>, beginning in 1922, had taken him back to Maimonides; but a different Maimonides now comes to light for him. In his first book Strauss called Maimonides "a believing Jew" (<i>SCR</i>, 185), but now he can say, "He was a truly free mind ... The crucial question for him was <i>not</i> world creation or world eternity (for he was persuaded of world eternity); instead, it was whether the ideal lawgiver must be a prophet." The crucial question had become <i>political</i> because the ontological issue of the eternity of the world had been settled, and the necessity of the ideal legislator's being a prophet "he—denied, as Farabi had before him and Averroes did in his own time." Strauss then adds something almost poignant, given the difficulties his own eventual art of writing would hand his readers: "It's very difficult to prove that because he discusses the question in an exegetical form."</p> <p>Strauss's next letter (February ), a brief report on his attempts to secure Klein (and himself) a position at the New School for Social Research, ends, "Now I have to go to Maimonides." He reports the results a little over a week later (February 16): "With Maimonides I've gone a good bit further—I mean in understanding the <i>Guide</i>—but I haven't written a line." A joking little preface to his report betrays his giddy mood: he refers to a book that bibliographers had sought in vain, <i>On the Three Imposters</i>, a rumored book about the three founding imposters, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed. It had been assigned to various authors but Strauss says it could not be found "simply because it was <i>sought</i> even though it was in everyone's hands: it's the <i>Guide</i> (or as the case may be, the works of Averroes and Farabi)." Then comes his discovery: "You can't imagine with what infinite refinement and irony Maimonides handles 'religion' ... One misunderstands Maimonides <i>simply</i> because one does not reckon with the possibility that he was an 'Averroist': consider it and all the difficulties in principle just dissolve." Before stating his actual discovery Strauss looks to its consequences: "If in a few years I explode this bomb (in case I live so long), a great battle will be kindled." Strauss suggests the destructiveness of the bomb by relating what an acquaintance said to him: "for Judaism Maimonides is more important than the Bible." Therefore: "to pull Maimonides out of Judaism is to pull out its foundation." Strauss comments coolly: "This will yield the interesting result that a simply historical determination—the determination that Maimonides in his beliefs was <i>absolutely</i> no Jew—is of considerable present-day significance: the incompatibility in principle of philosophy and Judaism ('clearly' expressed in the second verse of Genesis) would be demonstrated <i>ad oculos</i>." The thinker more important to Judaism than the Bible was absolutely no Jew; he was a philosopher, and philosophy and Judaism are incompatible—<i>that's</i> the bomb. How will Strauss explode it? "For now," he says, he's a long way away "from such important matters"; what concerns him meanwhile is "collecting a lexicon of secret words"—the patient piecework that will always be foundational to his actually writing a line on such matters. But "secret words" is misleading: "An essential point in Maim.'s technique is <i>of course</i> that he says <i>everything</i> completely openly, if in the places where an idiot doesn't look." Maimonides's exotericism is not a matter of secret depths or curtained enclosures: everything essential is hidden in plain sight. What is needed is the proper perspective for viewing the surface of the text in its planned complexity. From the beginning, then, Strauss knew that exotericism was not a matter of arcane, occult mysteries. He ends his account of his initial entry into Maimonides's exotericism: "The reading is an unbelievable pleasure that compensates me for so much." He signs off but he can't let go, adding a note that confirms how his discovery burdens him: "There's an aphorism in N.: when I hold the truth in my fist, dare I open my fist?" Alone in New York, missing his wife, burdened by fears for his future and that of his family and dearest friends, Strauss begins making the discoveries that transform his view of philosophy and assign him his lifework. He knows he holds a bomb in his fist, and he thinks of Nietzsche, who said, "I am dynamite."</p> <p>Back in England five months later, Strauss refers on July 4 to "the mystical treatise known to you"; then, on July 23, preparing his permanent move to the United States, he reports being "deeply immersed in my work, that is, in the completion of that mystical treatise which you partly already know. Yesterday I finally finished it." The <i>mystical treatise</i> is the essay on Maimonides that he published in 1941 and republished in 1952 as the third or central chapter of <i>Persecution and the Art of Writing</i>: "The Literary Character of the <i>Guide for the Perplexed</i>." Strauss briefly describes this first writing after discovering Maimonides's exotericism: "There are six little chapters from which the exacting reader will understand <i>everything</i> and which will give the superficial reader a sheaf of useful information." He thus holds two audiences in view, those who will understand and those who can profit without understanding—he has already seen to it that his own writing will bear the single most important feature of the writing by Maimonides that he has just learned to understand. He continues: "The view I succeeded in coming to in N.Y. has confirmed itself even more: the <i>Guide</i> is the most amazing book that I at least know. What N. had in mind with his <i>Zarathustra</i>, namely, a parody of the Bible, succeeds in the <i>Guide</i> in far greater measure." The idea of <i>imposter</i> still pleases him: "The paradox is that the very people who present the three imposters doctrine are themselves exactly what they imagine the founders of religion are: they themselves dupe the populace." Strauss describes precisely what Maimonides aims at: "The guide of the perplexed, or the instruction of the perplexed, is a repetition of the Torah (= instruction) for the perplexed, i.e., for the philosophers—i.e., an imitation of the Torah with 'little' 'additions' which only the expert notices and which imply a radical critique of the Torah." And Strauss confirms his reading of the <i>Guide</i> by finding that Maimonides's <i>Mishneh Torah</i> has the same character, "no less a satire of genius."</p> <p>The rest of this letter betrays Strauss's mix of feelings about his discoveries in Maimonides and his own "mystical treatise," speaking first with a modesty that hardly fits what he knows is a historic advance: "I could actually be a bit proud that I've solved this riddle." But personal pride pales at the thought of what he holds in his fist: "But maybe my nerves aren't strong enough—or I lack <i>'scientia'</i>—or both are the case. In short, at times I shudder in the face of what I may cause by my interpretation." His shudder can't extinguish his high-spirits: "The upshot will be that I, poor devil, have to spoon up the soup in which this diabolical sorcerer of the twelfth century landed me. But, as the heathens say, fata nolentem trahunt. Esto!" The heathen quoted by the Jew who entered Maimonides's non-Judaism is Seneca, whose complete thought runs: "the consenting fate leads, the resisting she schleps along with her"—Strauss counts himself a consenter together with the heathen Seneca.</p> <p>In the next letter to refer to exotericism, on October 15, Strauss is back in New York and reduced to what will become a depressing ritual, asking Klein for small loans that he pays back punctually after a few weeks. Strauss reports: "I'm starting to work." And what work it is, for the gains made with Maimonides Strauss now begins to make with Maimonides's ultimate teacher, Plato. His report is laconic: "I'm starting to work: <i>Nomoi</i>!" Plato's <i>Laws</i> has begun to open itself to him: "Above all, understanding the meaning of 'ambiguous speech' <i>polynoia</i> in the work." He adds in parentheses what will become a frequent lament in his reports on Greek matters: he's reading the scholarly commentators, but to a reader making discoveries in Greek exotericism, the superficiality of the scholars coupled with their conviction that they already know everything is almost more than he can bear. But he has help in reading Plato: "I'm now reading Herodotus, who—I swear it as a Catholic Christian—is also an esoteric writer and one in perfection. In short, it's happening again." What happened with Maimonides is happening with Greek authors and will happen repeatedly until Strauss has the whole tradition of Greek exotericism in view. After puckishly describing his and his wife's life in the United States as a continuation of their English life—"except boosted by the invasion of wurst, pickles, and grapefruit juice"—he signs off his brief letter with a fine little joke: "Cordially greeting you, also in the name of his wife, your friend, Leo Strauss." A superscript affixed to <i>Frau</i> leads to a footnote, three lines of Greek from the first full story in Herodotus, Candaulus's offer to Gyges to view his wife naked to confirm that she is the most beautiful of women. Strauss explains the esoteric meaning of the "clever story that greatly pleased M. [Mirjam, his wife]": "the wives are the 'patriarchal laws' which everyone holds for the most beautiful. Woe to Gyges, who views a 'wife' who is not his own. Therefore: esotericism." Now there's a letter fit to be sent on Nietzsche's birthday.</p> <p>Five days later (October 20), Strauss reports further on Herodotus: "I'm really stunned, and prostrate myself before such artistry (= capability)." Bowled over as he is by Herodotus, his focus lies elsewhere: "My lucky star wants it that his work is really the single model for Plato known to me." But that singleness may stem from his own ignorance: "(But then maybe all we learned about the tragedians, for example, is completely false)." What Herodotus points Strauss to in Plato is by any measure a supernova: "I can therefore show that what is nearest my heart about Plato is independent of the specifically Platonic philosophy." Plato is separable from Platonism, and it is that separated Plato who is dear to Strauss. He makes one Herodotus-Plato connection explicit: "Herodotus: a book of <i>logoi</i> (histories, stories) with the antidote to <i>logoi. Nomoi:</i> a book of <i>nomoi</i> with the antidote to <i>Nomoi</i>." He then adds a parenthetical remark that reveals how he now reads Plato: "(Besides, the <i>Phaedrus</i> passage on Egyptian <i>logoi</i> was certainly not written without an express relation to a very particular paragraph in Herodotus.)" Esoteric Plato is fully aware of esoteric Herodotus and responds in kind. Strauss expresses his great pleasure: "With my customary naiveté and modesty I declare that the riddle of Herodotus is solved!" He can go on: "The unitary ground for (a) history of the Persian wars, (b) short stories, 'novellas,' (c) ethnography has been found—wait, more on that orally." This unfortunate halt can serve as a reminder that we're lucky Strauss couldn't afford a telephone, as he says in his letter on December 15. He signs off in English: "I am perfectly happy in spite of the great financial troubles."</p> <p>Two weeks later (November 2), there's more: "I find myself in a state of frenzy that's consuming me: after Herodotus now Thucydides too!" Strauss's frenzy involves Plato: Pericles's funeral speech is "a pure parody—exactly like the Protagoras speech in <i>Protagoras</i>." Thucydides's exotericism includes conveying his meaning through silences: "the word <i>sôphrosunê</i> does <i>not</i> appear in the funeral speech: <i>that</i> is Thucyd.'s critique of Periclean Athens and of Pericles <i>himself</i>." Thucydides's exotericism is systematically present in his mix of speeches and deeds: "His history is no 'history' but an attempt to show by <i>deeds</i> those who are unteachable by speeches just where ignorance of <i>sôphrosunê</i> leads." Strauss is certain about where the "historian" Thucydides stands: "but it's settled for Thuc. that the speeches are more important than the deeds." Strauss inserted Plato parenthetically into his sentence—"(a completely Platonic theme – cf. <i>Apology</i> and <i>Crito</i>)"—and he expands the thought: "Spoken Platonically, the deeds are only <i>paidia</i>, and therefore they are ... essentially <i>comedies</i>." He appended a footnote to his comment on Plato: "Pay attention to the titles: no heroes! Only 4 titles indicate the theme: Politeia, Nomoi, Politikos, Sophistes—that already says everything!" Strauss shows how he reads Plato esoterically: "Moreover, the <i>Apology</i> ends with the word <i>theos</i>, i.e., with the word with which the Laws begins. I.e. the problem intentionally conjured away in the <i>Apology</i>—the gods in which the city believes—becomes <i>the</i> theme of the <i>Laws</i>. The <i>Laws</i> are Plato's <i>greatest</i> work of <i>art</i>." He adds a sentence after signing off, "It's beginning <i>to dawn</i> on me <i>how</i> misunderstood the ancients are." </div></div><br/> <i>(Continues...)</i> <!-- Copyright Notice --> <blockquote><hr noshade size='1'><font size='-2'>Excerpted from <b>THE ENDURING IMPORTANCE OF LEO STRAUSS</b> by <b>LAURENCE LAMPERT</b>. Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. <br/>All rights reserved. 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