Monday, July 20, 2009

Scott Horton's translation of Strauss's May 1933 Letter to Loewith

      I have linked to Scott Horton's translation of Strauss's 1933 letter to Loewith before, but I am posting it here to precede the next post, a video of a debate about this letter at the American Political Science Association which I organized in 2007.

                                           The Letter: An English Translation

Paris, May 19, 1933,

Dear Mr. Löwith,

       On your behalf I have in the meantime made the necessary overture to Groethuysen, who is in London. Besides this I had occasion to speak with Van Sickle, the head of the Rockefeller Foundation, and informed him about you, your situation, your work and your interests. He made a note of your name, so I am sure he will remember it when he comes across it in Fehling’s letter.(1)

        As concerns me, I will receive the second year. Berlin recommended me, and that was decisive.(2) I will also spend my second year in Paris, and I will attempt in this time to undertake something that will make my further work possible. Clearly I have major competition: the entire German-Jewish intellectual proletariat is assembled here. It’s terrible – I’d rather just run back to Germany.

      But here’s the catch. Of course I can’t opt for just any other country - one doesn’t choose a homeland and, above all, a mother tongue, and in any event I will never be able to write other than in German, even if I must write in another language. On the other hand, I see no acceptable possibility of living under the swastika, i.e., under a symbol that says nothing more to me than: you and your ilk, you are physei(3) subhumans and therefore justly pariahs. There is in this case just one solution. We must repeat: we, men of science, - as our predecessors in the Arab Middle Ages called themselves - non habemus locum manentem, sed quaerimus…(4) And, what concerns this matter: the fact that the new right-wing Germany does not tolerate us says nothing against the principles of the right. To the contrary: only from the principles of the right, that is from fascist, authoritarian and imperial principles, is it possible with seemliness, that is, without resort to the ludicrous and despicable appeal to the droits imprescriptibles de l’homme(5) to protest against the shabby abomination.(6) I am reading Caesar’s Commentaries with deep understanding, and I think of Virgil’s Tu regere imperio… parcere subjectis et debellare superbos.(7) There is no reason to crawl to the cross, neither to the cross of liberalism, as long as somewhere in the world there is a glimmer of the spark of the Roman thought. And even then: rather than any cross, I’ll take the ghetto.

         I do not therefore fear the fate of the émigré - at most secundum carnem:(8) the hunger or similar deprivations.  In a sense our sort are always emigrants; and what concerns the rest, the fear of bitterness, which is certainly very great, and in this sense I think of Klein(9), who in every sense has always been an emigrant, living proof for the fact that it is not unconquerable.

          Dixi, et animam meam salvavi.(10)

          Live well! My heartiest greetings to you and your wife.

                            Leo Strauss 

          My wife sends her thanks for your greetings, and reciprocates heartily.


Published Source: Leo Strauss, Gesammelte Schriften, Bd. 3: Hobbes politische Wissenschaft und zugehörige Schriften, Briefe (Heinrich Meier, ed.), Metzler Verlag 2001, pp. 624-25.

Translator: Scott Horton



(1) In 1934, Karl Löwith, another Heideggerian, received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation enabling him to leave Germany for studies in Italy; he subsequently traveled to Japan, and then to the United States, where he taught at the Hartford Theological Seminary and the New School in New York. He returned to Germany in 1952 with an appointment as professor of philosophy at the University of Heidelberg.

(2) Strauss had received notification that the Rockefeller Foundation was giving him a second year’s scholarship for post-graduate work in Paris.

(3) Greek in original, by nature. The following term, rendered here as subhumans is the Nietzschean expression Untermenschen.

(4) Latin, We don’t have a lasting place, but seek. The key phrase locum manentum appears repeatedly in the Vulgate Bible. Strauss’ sense would appear to be a conflation of Maimonides and Nietzsche, something like this: deterritorialized, uprooted, men of science cannot in good conscience identify with any exclusive group; that is for lesser men. On the other hand, identifying with diaspora Judaism may be a useful bridge.

(5) French, inalienable rights of man - quoted from the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, Aug. 26, 1789.

(6) In the original: das meskine Unwesen, the word meskine may be a Germanization of the French mesquin or Italian meschino, meaning mean or shabby.

(7) Romans, be this thy care - these thine arts -/to spare the humbled and/ to wear down the proud! Virgil, Aeneid, lib. 6, line 851. In this quotation, Strauss characteristically elides the most famous portion of this passage, which relates to the obligation to uphold the law of peace. The passage is often quoted by Carl Schmitt.

(8) Latin, with respect to the body.

(9) Jacob Klein, another Heideggerian and friend of Strauss, with Strauss an advocate of the esoteric/exoteric approach to the study of classical texts, Klein emigrated and taught at St John’s College.

(10) Latin, I have spoken and saved my soul. A phrase associated with confessions, especially before the Holy Inquisition, though used ironically by Karl Marx and other political writers.

1 comment:

Charles said...

Many thanks to Scott Horton for this translation, but a minor criticism, if I may. Horton explains in n. 6 that the term "meskine" in the clause "das meskine Unwesen," which he translates as "the shabby abomination," comes from French or Italian. Well, yes, but the French and Italian are merely adaptations of the Arabic "miskin," which means "poor" or "indigent." The word occurs frequently in the Quran; see, e.g., 89:17 and 107:3. A better translation of the clause might be "the wretched disorder" or, even better, "the wretched nonentity."
Charles Butterworth

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