He Who Laughs Last?
Leo Strauss’s Spinoza’s Critique of Religion
By Jon D. Levenson
Leo Strauss wrote Spinoza’s critique of religion in the Weimar Republic, in 1925 to 1928. The English edition, published in 1965 and reissued in 1997, adds a powerful post-Holocaust reflection on the cultural and political vulnerability of Weimar and on “the Jewish problem” in Europe in general. The preface also offers penetrating observations about a number of key Jewish religious thinkers, particularly Maimonides, Spinoza, Hermann Cohen, and Franz Rosenzweig, setting them into a critical conversaion with one another.
In this volume, as in all of his work, Strauss critiques modernist supersessionism and seeks to recover a classical past, thus defending Maimonides’s understanding of prophecy against Spinoza’s debunking of it, for example, or upholding (in the preface) the classical conception of Jewish observance against Rosenzweig’s more experiential and selective theology. Strauss argues that “all assertions of orthodoxy rest on the irrefutable premise that the omnipotent God . . . who has decided to live in deep darkness, may exist”—a premise that he thinks “cannot be refuted by experience or by recourse to the principle of contradiction.”
He goes on to claim that “an indirect proof of this is the fact that Spinoza and his like owed such success as they had in their fight against orthodoxy to laughter and mockery . . . they attempted to laugh orthodoxy out of its position from which it could not be dislodged by any proofs supplied by Scripture or by reason.”
In Strauss’s thinking, philosophy and a belief in revelation are each ultimately unable to refute the other, and “philosophy, the quest for evident and necessary knowledge, rests itself on an unevident decision.” If the naturalist premise is indeed “unevident,” then the rhetorical excesses and conceptual lapses of the “new atheism” may not be so new after all.
Jon D. Levenson is the List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard. His most recent book, Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel (Yale University Press), has just won a National Jewish Book Award. An interview with him about that book is also in this issue.