Persecution and the Art of Writing

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Persecution and the Art of Writing by Leo Strauss, from University of Chicago Press.

Leo Strauss Persecution and the Art of Writing from University of Chicago Press

I have lost count of the number of good scholarly books I’ve read which have offered praise (or at least positive citation) of Persecution and the Art of Writing. It was on my list of books to read for about five years, which is impressive in itself, and even more peculiar in light of the fact that it’s only about 200 pages long.

Although well and carefully written, Persecution and the Art of Writing is no easy read. The larger part of the volume is taken up with case studies from the writings of Maimonides, Halevi, and Spinoza, and readers unfamiliar with the the medieval and early modern Jewish intellectual traditions will benefit from reading a good encyclopedia article on each before approaching their respective treatments by Strauss, who assumes an informed, even elite reader for his exploration of the hermeneutical methods to be used with these writers.

Strauss proposes that prior to the liberal regimes of modernity, the greatest and most careful philosophers necessarily wrote in an apparently incoherent fashion, so that their true conclusions could remain “between the lines,” cloaked by statements of permissible but dissimulating opinion. His notion of the “exoteric text” is one that is not merely accessible to the vulgar public—those whom Maimonides called “people of the earth”—but which conceals heterodox lures for “potential philosophers” under the cover of more conventional positions.

The admiration of certain Neoconservative pundits for Strauss has contributed to a posthumous view of him as a political reactionary favoring domination by rulers who deceive the populace. My own reading of Persecution and the Art of Writing does not support this claim; Strauss consistently represents his dissembling philosophers as seeking to perpetuate their ideas in the face of bigoted tradition. But given his insistence on the method of textual ambiguity, and the justification of answering fools according to their folly, my confidence in having interpreted his genuine thoughts is far from full. [via]