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Leo Strauss and the Politics of Exile

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Leo Strauss and the Politics of Exile: The Making of a Political Philosopher [Amazon, Abebooks, Publisher, Local Library] by Eugene Sheppard, part of The Tauber Institute Series for the Study of European Jewry.

Sheppard Leo Strauss and the Politics of Exile

I have only ever read one text by Leo Strauss (Persecution and the Art of Writing) and this is the first secondary work focused on him that I have read. Eugene Sheppard’s Leo Strauss and the Politics of Exile: The Making of a Political Philosopher distinctly shows traces of its origin as a doctoral dissertation in Jewish intellectual history. The meat of the book is, for all that, very interesting. Sheppard examines Strauss’s biography and intellectual development only prior to his attainment of celebrity at the University of Chicago. He traces the philosopher’s origins among conservative rural Jews in Germany, his iconoclastic relationship to Weimar politics, the relationships that he formed with conservative scholars in Germany, and his difficult orientation to the academic scene in the US. The anecdotes and quotes from Strauss’s long friendship with Gershom Scholem were particularly notable, from my perspective.

Persecution and the Art of Writing is the climax and turning point of this narrative, where Strauss anchors his work in relationship to “the ramifications of multilevel writing as the philosophical response of one resigned to live in an imperfect society yet not fully willing to surrender a noble vision of the perfect regime” (80). Not only does Strauss write about the use of this technique in the Middle Ages and antiquity, along with its extinction in early modernity, he also writes using the technique, and dissimulating his atheist, anti-theological convictions while supporting the worldly authority of religious doctrines. 

Like Sheppard, I find myself in disagreement with what I understand of Strauss’s mature politics. But I appreciate the extent to which Strauss seized on the dilemmas of liberal modernity, and I observe an essential congruity between the Jewish galut (condition of exile) and the Gnostic sense of alienation, in that both fuel the dynamics of esoteric expression. This book is fascinating and has only further encouraged me to read more Strauss.