Leo Strauss on Moses Mendelssohn

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Daniel O. Thomas L. Pangle Chicago: University of Chicago Press, , If Lessing is attempting to recover premodern thought as Strauss believes , the cause would be the desire to pro- tect the nonphilosophical members of the community. I do not mean the Lessing of a certain tradition, the Lessing celebrated by a certain type of oratory, but the true and unknown Lessing. He decided in favor of philosophy—Why he took this step he has indicated. This ambivalence, however, is also not a rejection tout court of the sequence. Martin D. Yaffe and Richard S.

Ruderman Palgrave McMillan: , ; Nisbet Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, , He seeks to illu- minate the combined private and public perplexities that Mendelssohn bequeathed to subsequent Jewish thought and life—which, even or espe- cially under the pressure of his controversy with Jacobi, Mendelssohn never quite succeeded in illuminating for himself. For 20 JPCM, While I will dedicate the most space to this introduction, discussion of the others is necessary to elucidate the interpretive path on which Mendelssohn treads and at which Strauss balks.

Paul Guyer and Allen W. I confess, that I have kept this section simply to pay homage to the winning eloquence of Plato. From then on, I found it necessary to diverge from Plato totally. His proofs for the immateriality of the soul seem, at least to us, so shallow and capri- cious, that they scarcely deserve a serious refutation.

In the implementation of his philosophizing, the philosopher experiences that he can reach his goal, Being, Truth, only if he has freed himself from the body, that he reaches Truth more, the more he frees himself from the body: the freeing of the soul from the body, dying, is the ideal condition of philosophizing as dis- closed in philosophizing itself.

Mendelssohn does away with this connec- tion explicitly. Strauss, What Is Political Philosophy? For Strauss, this had quite clear practical even political consequences: by the dissolution of the classical conception of justice, in which the orig- inal sense of justice as obedience to law had been preserved [this being one similarity between Greek philosophy and biblical thought], he had considerably advanced the process that aimed at the suppression of law as obligation in favor of right as claim.

What distinguishes Mendelssohn from Leibniz on this point is, rather, merely that he, the author of Jerusalem [which argues for, among other things, freedom from ecclesias- tical and political coercion], was incomparably more strongly interested in the practical consequences that had to result from the change of the he simply draw out an element from the Platonic text?


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This very interesting question is unfortunately far too large to be pursued in the present context. He had devised his game so minutely, he had from the start maneuvered the guileless and self-certain Mendelssohn into such an unfavorable stance, that after the latter had committed the imprudence of involving himself in the private communication at all instead of hauling Jacobi into the public forum right away, hardly any other choice remained for him except to resort to tactics and dishonesty in turn.


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Thus, Mendelssohn is the arrogant, rigid practi- tioner of modern Jewish thought, and Jacobi is the arrogant, polemical tacti- cian of the leap of faith. We could not reach any agreement and I left it at that. Lawson, and C. Its importance merits quoting it at length: The pure expressions of the pain of the friend are more perceptible to our ear than the strained outbreaks of the annoyances of the outsmarted whose carefully devised tactic has come to naught.

The pain over the bar- rier that separated him from Lessing, of which he had only now become aware, was so deep that words failed him for properly describing the bru- tality with which Jacobi had brought this barrier to his awareness. Not merely had there fallen on his friendship, which was the greatest hap- piness of his life, a shadow that, in a truly forgivable manner, crushed his self-esteem. Together with this, his trust toward the non-Jewish world had been shaken: after all, unreserved friendship with Lessing was at the same time also the oldest and most trustworthy bridge that connected him with that world at all, the testimony most precious to him of the possibility of complete understanding between men of the opposite background.

One can appreciate again by now how great the hurdles must have been, despite which Mendelssohn kept working on his trust in non-Jewish friends—he who was as free of pathological sensitivities as a mere human can be, who bore no greater distrust than what is justi- fied sufficiently by the experiences of the Jews at all times. Without assum- ing such a justified distrust toward the non-Jewish world, one cannot, as things stand, understand his behavior in the quarrel with Jacobi, nor for that matter, his behavior toward Bonnet in the quarrel with Lavater.

To be sure, the same natural hatred against the Jews did not then yet have the principle of nationalism at its disposal; but even so, the anti-Jewish theory and practice of the Christian Churches supplied it with weapons scarcely less effective.

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For a more standard treatment of the panthe- ism controversy, see Frederick C. One can put the point differently: Mendelssohn was a tireless advocate of communication with non-Jewish society.

A Second Moses

This he tried with Lavater, Dohm both of whom desired his conversion , and finally Jacobi. The realization that his attempts could not even bridge gaps with Lessing his closest friend was too much for Mendelssohn. Altmann sums up the situation well: Was Mendelssohn, then, the victim of a morbid obsession caused by the traumatic experience inflicted upon him long ago by Lavater, whose influence on Jacobi could not be gainsaid, and whose very name revived dark shadows of the past?

This may have been the case to some extent, but there was a certain substance to his imaginings.

Why Moses Mendelssohn Matters

How does this personal battle come to be seen as such a symptom? Recall that for Mendelssohn, philosophy is, first and foremost, a practical endeavor—this means that contemplation is inferior to guidance for life Spinoza Conversations, What makes Spinoza such an interesting candidate for the debate between Mendelssohn and Jacobi, as Yaffe points out, is that in the wake of the modern Machiavellian project of Bacon, Descartes, and Hobbes to make human beings the masters and owners of nature— that is to say, to make philosophy or science essentially practical—Spinoza aims to restore the dignity of speculation or contemplation.

And recognition of the necessity by virtue of which 31 See Mendelssohn, Morning Hours, The claim that Lessing never revealed his true position to Mendelssohn amounts therefore to an admission that Lessing was a closet atheist. Mendelssohn was thus in the position of having to defend his own conception of rational Jewish religion against a polemically driven non-Jewish thinker Jacobi who persuasively claimed that Lessing the paragon of undog- matic intellectual freedom was actually a product of the dogmatic rejection of religion characteristic of the Enlightenment in general and Spinoza in particular.

There is more. The inner, constantly acting activity of the divine power of representation produces in God himself everlasting images of contingent beings. This conception of religion, however, does not actually address the theological-political problem—i. This, for Strauss, is the ambivalent legacy that Mendelssohn has bequeathed to modern Judaism. What is the alternative to this narrative of modernity? Yaffe does not explicitly say; however as stated above , he provides some microscopic notes pointing toward the alternative for Strauss—namely, Maimonides.

Insofar as this alternative is premodern, it is by definition contemplative rather than practical. This inability not only com- promised the physical security of the Jews, it also left Judaism intellectually without resources for dealing with hatred.

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If Judaism is to maintain such intel- lectual resources, it cannot simply be based on liberalism as a philosophy. Lessing leads Strauss to Maimonides. Where, though, did Leibniz get his understanding of punitive justice? God, prompted by essential reasons of wisdom, decreed that he should pass into existence just as he is.

Characteristic 34 G. Leibniz, Theodicy, trans. Yaffe is professor of philosophy and religion studies at the University of North Texas and the author or editor of several books, including Shylock and the Jewish Question.

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    It syncs automatically with your account and allows you to read online or offline wherever you are. Please follow the detailed Help center instructions to transfer the files to supported eReaders. Similar ebooks. See more. Leo Strauss. Leo Strauss is widely recognized as one of the foremost interpreters of Maimonides.

    His studies of the medieval Jewish philosopher led to his rediscovery of esotericism and deepened his sense that the tension between reason and revelation was central to modern political thought. His writings throughout the twentieth century were chiefly responsible for restoring Maimonides as a philosophical thinker of the first rank.