Book Review: Liberalism Ancient And Modern

Liberalism Ancient And Modern, by Leo Strauss

Leo Strauss and his disciples are often viewed as being secret enemies of the liberal society by virtue of their assiduous study of the gap between the surface and hidden meaning of texts.  Yet this book shows that if Strauss is viewed as an enemy of the liberal society, that he views himself as being a secret friend by being an apparent enemy, and by seeking to warn the friends of the liberal society of the crisis that exists in it, by virtue of looking at the crisis of ancient liberal society which fell to the same sorts of pressures that face contemporary Western society with regards to the threat from tyranny outside and the threat of corruption and demagoguery within.  This book not only examines liberal society itself but also the place of the Jew within liberal society, pointing out somewhat painfully that to rid the world of the anti-semitism that contributed to the Holocaust would require an illiberal society that would likely–like the Communist world–appeal to anti-semitism for its own reasons.  The result is a thoughtful book if a somewhat difficult book because the author himself is not an open-hearted writer, but rather someone whose hidden as well as surface meanings must be taken into account.

This book is a bit more than 250 pages and it is divided into ten chapters.  The book begins with a foreword by Allan Bloom as well as a preface.  The author then tackles the question of what is liberal education, separating it from an education that is merely practical and interested in vocational education (1).  The author then writes an essay on the connection but not unity between liberal education and responsibility, in part by looking at different senses of the word responsibility (2).  The author discusses the liberalism of classical political philosophy, in part by examining the way that this is viewed by others (3).  There is a brief discussion on the Minos as an introduction to Plato’s discussion of the laws (4), and then some very lengthy notes on Lucretius and what he has to say about philosophy, religion, and politics (5).  There is a discussion of how to begin to study the Guide of the Perplexed that helps to point out the importance of the various layers of meaning in the text and its organization (6).  A discussion of Marsilius of Padua leads to a discussion of the variation possible within Christian philosophers (7) and then an epilogue that discusses some of his own thinking about political philosophy (8).  The book then ends with two chapters that discuss Spinoza’s critique of religion and provide a critique of a critique of that critique (9) as well as a perspective on the good society (10), after which there are acknowledgements and an index of names.

It is easy to see why people would mistrust someone like Leo Strauss.  This book demonstrates his willingness to speak truths that others are not willing to admit to themselves regarding the limits of liberal arts in educating the mass population, and in pointing out the way that religion (and irreligion) can be threats to the well-being of a government.  Yet if Strauss speaks truths that others are unwilling to admit openly, so as to appear as an enemy of liberal institutions, he also does not speak all of his truths openly, because he desires to instruct his readers (like his students, in all likelihood) to understand how it is to read the layers and infer meaning that cannot be said.  In order to do that, the author goes on what appears to be tangents, such as a discussion of the Guide Of The Perplexed as a way of pointing out that a work which has an open meaning for the ordinary reader and a hidden meaning for the elite reader, but is nonetheless a coherent book because it has an honest meaning for all of its readers despite its multiple layers.  And the same is true of Strauss’ own work, including this book.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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