Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Clashing Visions of Arendt and Strauss

           

      Roger Berkowitz has just published an edited a book of essays by scholars on Hannah Arendt named for her collection of essays Men in Dark Times.  He was interviewed about it by Scott Horton here. 

      Roger raises a number of themes which make for an interesting comparison with Strauss.   As I have suggested before, Arendt  and Strauss had many broad intellectual commonalities; Strauss also tried to court her.  But from seemingly common starting points, the political and theoretical distance was, surprisingly, great.

        In a note to me, Roger stresses Arendt’s notion of modern rootlessness.  He connects it at the beginning and end of Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism to her insights into a modern person’s homelessness and loneliness.  There is obviously a deep truth in these notions.  Think only of the trends of American culture, the rapid mobility, the extinction of the extended family in the middle classes and upward, the disappearance of family farms and the creation of horrific factory assembly-line production where animals are manipulated chemically and imprisoned physically (and infect consumers), think of individuals watching ever the same television shows (at least as far as ideology is concerned, whatever the occasional liveliness), and finally, the existence of virtual life on computers and in exercise gyms open “24/7” (you can get “healthy,” sweating, alone)…loneliness, rootlessness, not being at home in several senses.   Of this distinction between loneliness (where one has lost one’s dialogue with oneself and is not accompanied by even a single trusted other) and solitude which is part of innovation and thought, Arendt says at p. 477

         “What makes loneliness so unbearable is the loss of one’s own self which can be realized in solitude, but confirmed in its identity only by the trusting and trustworthy company of my equals.  In this situation, man loses trust in himself as the partner of his thoughts and that elementary confidence in the world which is necessary to make experiences at all.  Self and world, capacity for thought and experience are lost at the same time.”

        As Roger put it in a note to me:

       “I just went and re-read your post on our friend Bill C. [Connolly]and Strauss. [here and here]  I am struck by your riff on ‘rootlessness.’ Obviously this is a loaded word as you make abundantly clear. yet it is a key word--one might say the key word --in much of Arendt's work as well. She, unlike Strauss, never wanted to join the party or the Party. i was just on a panel  with Margarethe von Trotta and Leon Botstein this weekend and also  Norman Manea, who brought up Saul Bellow's antipathy for Arendt and his claim that she had disdain for not only Ost-Juden but also Americans [Manea had interviewed Bellow for the Skidmore College literary journal Salmagundi]. I thought that misleading in the sense that Arendt had a certain tragic disdain for all of us rootless peoples, by which she includes not only reds and jews, but all of us, herself included. Can  one call her a self-hating modern?  In any case, I think there is a  metaphysical use of the idea of rootlessness that, while still expressing a certain disdain, does so without aiming that disdain at any particular group today. That is how I have read Arendt.”

       Hannah envisoned  moderns as nearly the last men or in danger of “falling into the one”, but she included herself among us.  We are equals in being dispossessed by all the changes in some good things or along some moral dimensions (in contrast, as I emphasize in Democratic Individuality, slavery and certain forms of patriarchy are also gone, the sense of the value of each human being much greater).   There was a trace of Nietzsche or Heidegger here as in her notion of the “banality of evil,” but an observation of different possibilities as well – solitude and dialogue in the self and with others as opposed to Eichman, for example.  

           In opposition, for Strauss, there was just crass disgust for all.  He sought inconsistently to elevate himself and “philosophers,” to proffer the “God” of the original believers to the modern Jewish masses, but not for a moment to believe in it or that he could return to it (an anti-modern. as he observed in 1923 defending the “half-fascist” Jewish wandering youth group Blau-Weiss and its leader, is a modern).

         As I underlined in Shadings: “They consider me a ‘Nazi’ here” – Leo Strauss, December 3, 1933 here, both Arendt and Strauss were followers of Heidegger.  A central idea of Being and Time is, as opposed to Husserl’s phenomenology, that humans are ontologically characterized by “Being-in-the-world.”  They find themselves "thrown" into history, they can "fall into the one" (or the last men); they can also  achieve, through facing their own particular mortality (“Being-toward-death”), authentic “Being-in-the-world” or a kind of (generational) self-awareness.   For Heidegger, this was fascism (authentically giving one's life for the fatherland) and ultimately Nazism.  An aspect of this, which is plain in Heidegger down to the peasant garb, the unwillingness to take a job in Berlin, the affection for the Dark Forest, is rootedness which relates to the reactionary idea that peasants are “rooted in the soil” or the Nazi “Blut und Boden” (blood and soil), rural life to be celebrated, rootless urbanism disdained.  Of course, Heidegger was notably affected or artificial in this way, and got himself into genocidal difficulties. 

         In his posthumously published “Origins of Heideggerian Existentialism,” Strauss shares Heidegger’s hostility to urbanism – what he takes to be central to Marx and the last men.  In its place, he hopes for a rural regime, and elsewhere admires the rural citizens of Athens or imagines himself a postman reading Nietzsche and Plato in small town Hessen...

        Taking on Heidegger’s vision but resistant to his politics, Arendt also, as Roger emphasizes, focuses on rootlessness.  But she sees this as a problem of the modern age – for all of us – not as something that can be vanquished by fascism, but rather out of which fascism and other forms of totalitarianism (she is way less good on communism) come.

       More importantly, she took the emphasis on Greek politics in Heidegger and Strauss and transformed it.  The latter saw the philosopher aiding the tyrant.  Heidegger, who named himself Rektor-Fuehrer when appointed to lead the University of Freiburg,  hoped idly to counsel Hitler.  Strauss envisioned an authoritarian statesman who would listen to a “reasonable man” or philosopher a la Xenophon’s Hiero – what has turned into executive or commander in chief power in America.  Greek politics was, for Plato, totalitarian (I use the word deliberately here though with some skepticism about its value for analysis), the  shaping of a good regime from above by the wise legislator. 

         In contrast to both, Arendt took up politics as innovation, democracy and (political) revolution.  She admired Athens whose demos Strauss despised.  She admired the French Resistance (see The Human Condition), the sense of being fiercely alive in decent political activity which as a participant in the civil rights and anti-War movements I am profoundly sympathetic to.  Politics need not be organizing for a pseudo-democratic, hierarchical, corrupt leader (note that the Obama movement came precisely from the fact that he spoke to and for inclusiveness, democracy and the rule of law against the darkness of Cheney; it is always possible, however briefly it seems, to find a non-corrupt leader, a potential “statesman”).  Rather one organizes from below for a great cause, to defeat Vichy and the Nazis, to defeat segregation, to defeat unjust or genocidal wars.  Such politics can give life to its participants and to the oppressed whom it recognizes as human and for whom that recognition means everything, is a source of standing up, coming into life, making one’s mark in a new, comparatively free political era. 

       Consider Desmond Tutu’s description of what the first election meant in South Africa in No Future without Forgiveness.

        “It was an amazing spectacle.  People of all races were standing together in the same queues perhaps for the first time in their lives. Professionals, domestic workers, cleaners and their madams – all were standing in those lines that were snaking their way slowly towards the polling booth.  What should have been a disaster turned out instead to be a blessing in disguise.  Those lines produced a new and peculiarly South African status symbol.  Afterwards, people boasted: `I stood two hours to vote.’  ‘I waited for four hours.’

         “Those long hours helped us South Africans to find one another. People shared newspapers, sandwiches, umbrellas, and the scales began to fall from their eyes. South Africans found fellow South Africans – they realized what we had been at such pains to tell them, that they shared a common humanity, that race, ethnicity, skin color were really irrelevancies. They discovered not a Colored, a black, an Indian, a white.  No, they discovered fellow human beings.  What a profound scientific discovery that blacks, Coloreds (usually people of mixed race), and Indians were in fact human beings, who had the same concerns and anxieties and aspirations.  They wanted a decent home, a good job, a safe environment for their families, good schools for their children, and almost none wanted to drive the whites into the sea.  They just wanted their place in the sun.” (pp. 6-7).

        Those who sacrificed (Steve Biko, for instance) in the movement to make this possible perhaps experienced what Arendt thinks of as great in the political.  This idea in South Africa gave rise to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and healing.  In Arendt, the idea of power in On Violence, of the people coming together, is this Greek idea.  It is the idea of democracy and the root, as Jonathan Schell insists in The Unconquerable World, of nonviolence.  As I suggest in "Only a foolish reactionary would assert ‘There are no women philosophers'” here, it is one of the great ideas of the recent period of time in political philosophy.  It dwarfs in significance any thought not only of Strauss but even of Heidegger, though of course, it also transforms what is decent in Heidegger’s ontological and political account (a different implication from the way Heidegger filled in a common ontological vision).  Arendt was her own figure – much more than Strauss – and also a remarkably creative Heideggerian.*

      In response to Bellow's comment about Arendt which Roger reports,  Arendt did not yearn for peasants rooted in the soil.  She was not anti-modern, let alone anti-urban.  She understood that rootlessness was characteristic of urban life; she saw some healing for it in democratic, resistance, movement politics.  She was urban, puffing her cigarettes, not a faux peasant a la Heidegger, or a faux postman in dreams, a la Strauss. She exemplified the liberation of women which both Heidegger and Strauss sought to erase.

         Responding to Scott Horton’s query about Arendt’s library at Bard and the well-worn pages of Carl Schmitt in it, Roger gives several examples of how Schmitt may have influenced Arendt, particularly one on imperialism from Origins of Totalitarianism. But I would emphasize how anti-Schmitt’s (and Strauss’s who accepted Schmitt’s) notion of having an enemy, Arendt’s concept of politics is. Arendt theorized and inspired nonviolence, even though this was not her intent (as we will see below, she had trouble with the civil rights movement).  In no way would she have furthered, as Strauss furthered, authoritarian power to combat the Soviet Union in what Schmitt called “the state of the exception” (once again, Schmitt provides the name or intellectual fire-power for many of Strauss’s dark hints or variance among seeming repetitions).

       The business of ordinary politics (the last men for Strauss) is, as Arendt sees,  created by and has ever new possibilities for such innovation and political glory.  Here, her affection for what was political in the ancients merges with the human capacity to give rise to ever new possibilities. Perhaps as a woman doing political theory, she had a sense of creation, of the new and of democratic or nonviolent power from below which is absent in the stale patriarchs Heidegger and Strauss.

        Has politics vanished for humans?  Consider the issue of climate change.  Right now there are international meetings in Cophenhagen.  There is some movement; this is no longer the era of Bush.  But Obama is proposing modest (pursable in mainstream politics, as it stands) initiatives  Without great movements from below, popular initiatives, heroic leadership of many kinds, catastrophes will ensue for the planet and for millions of ordinary people.  These catastrophes will at first particularly harm the global South which did little of the industrial coal burning which lies at the root of warming.  Some 100,000 people demonstrated in Copenhagen; a thousand were arrested.   The developing countries walked out over the resistance to even enforce Kyoto.

      Still, there are many kinds of public activity (including green inventions) that young people can be inspired by, take up. 

       And would that bad wars or racism or poverty had vanished from our planet.  Healing all (the dream of communism) is perhaps not possible.  But the need for innovations to heal at least enough to survive is before our eyes…

      In response to Scott’s questions, Roger speaks of Arendt’s Zionism and it would be worth comparing this more sharply to Strauss's.

      “Arendt never denied her Judaism. She insisted that one defend oneself in the identity for which one is attacked–in her case, as a Jew. In the 1930s she worked for Youth Aliyah helping to transport Jewish children to Palestine. In the 1940s she advocated for a Jewish army to fight the Nazis and wrote passionately about the plight of Jews in concentration camps, criticizing Jewish leaders for not acting to publicize the Holocaust. After the war, she stood with Judah Magnes as a critic of the establishment of Israel as a Jewish state. Instead, she advocated for a binational state that encompassed Jews and Arabs as equal citizens. Whether such a state was ever possible, many have credited Arendt with prescience in her prediction that a Jewish state would necessarily be chauvinist, that Palestinians—as second class citizens—would emerge as refugees presenting an insolvable problem, and that Israel would become a militarized state. Arendt had little patience for the Jewish leaders of the diaspora, a group that gained their leadership credentials not through election, but through philanthropy. These very Jewish leaders later shunned Arendt for her coverage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann.”

       Arendt organized to get Jewish children out of Europe.  In the holocaust, it is hard to think of a more decent activity. See darkness here.  She fought to recognize and save those who had been consigned to the camps.   In contrast, Strauss was sympathetic to the National Revolution and favored a dictatorial, European or German-oriented Zionism (with orthodox religiosity for others). He recognized the genocide very late – even though it took his father - and, sadly, gives no evidence even then of trying to help others.

      Arendt fought for a democratic Israel, one in which Jews could affirm their equality with Palestinians. She was more true to the egalitarian heritage of Jews as those who exited bondage than the original leaders of Israel.   With Judah Magnes,  she sought a non-religious state of equal rights of Jews and Palestinians, and warned of militarism.  She thus foreshadowed the horrors of the occupied territories, illegal settlements (haughty imitations of American suburban life, subsidized by the Israeli government, lording it over camps or worse, the wreckage by the army of those camps).  Prescient is the right word.   And Israel is today threatened by its colonial project in the occupied territories, by the rampaging settlers whom the government will not and perhaps cannot curtail. The false torah-madness of the settlers, nurtured from on high and linked to the army (the army obeys the laws for most –non-dissident – Jews, but it is an army of occupation, an army that commits or looks the other way at horrors in the occupied territories).  Already illegal and immoral settlers routinely destroy olive groves and defile mosques, attack Palestinians violently and, thus, provoke violence with impunity (currently, the Palestinian leaderships seems to have gotten the point that negotiations are to their advantage as is now visible in the European Union’s call for a negotiated agreement preserving the 1967 borders; militant civil disobedience would be a far better strategy for the Palestinians and Jews who detest occupation).  In this circumstance, a bi-national solution with equal rights, against the settlers and their elite allies (the government subsidizes the settlements) may become the only decent option.

     Arendt did the very thing that Strauss, as I have emphasized, with his admiration for Arab Platonists like Al-Farabi, could have done, but chose not to do. Since I had not thought so much about her in this context, I am especially grateful to Roger and to Charles Butterworth for pointing this out.

      Norman Manea told Roger of Saul Bellow’s disdain for Arendt. Arendt and Strauss had both taught at Chicago and continued their dislike for one another; Bellow co-taught with Allan Bloom, Strauss’s student, there.   Supposedly, according to Bellow, Arendt disliked Ost-Juden (darker, Sephardic or East European Jews).  That was common enough among Ashkenazi Jews identifying themselves as Germans, as we have seen in the letters between Strauss and Loewith.  In his novel Ravelstein, Bellow attractively depicts his friend, enabling the reader, despite Bloom’s extraordinary and bizarre Reaction (attacking the Versailles Treaty as weak, from the Right, in favor of invasion of Weimar Germany) to empathize with him.  Bellow speaks reverently of Ravelstein’s teacher, Professor Davarr (Strauss).  But as neither Bloom, who worshipped Strauss as a kind of magical rabbi, wanting his aura to rub off, but often did not get his ideas )** nor Bellow saw, Strauss despised the Ostjuden and looked down on “lesser” Jews and “lesser” people generally.

     Bellow describes Ravelstein/Bloom as a gossip (there is less thought in Bloom's letters- see below – than even in Strauss).    Arendt taught down the hall from Strauss, she had a great and deserved following and her writings attracted wide interest.  She was a formidable rival.  She had also rejected Strauss’s suit.  Strauss growled, and Bloom repeated at the American Enterprise Institute in 1984,  “there are no women philosophers.”   This story about Arendt’s alleged prejudice toward Ost-Juden and Americans probably did not emanate from Strauss (who shared these prejudices at least for Ost-Juden), but from Bloom’s zeal to justify to his master, decry the rival.  Here, once again, is the boomerang (Bloom and Bellow, too, are "lesser" Jews).  Here, too, the hidden gay, who worships Strauss and “the tradition” (other Straussians like Jaffa excoriated Bloom for being gay; he was perhaps at the Committee on Social Thought and not in Political Science at Chicago partly because of such bigotry), irrationally strikes out at women and perhaps at himself.

         Strauss was an interesting and creative teacher, and often tolerant of students finding their own way. But he could not jump over himself.   From on high, he also looked down on some of his own students (once again, Cropsey had a sense that he looked down even on him, a Jew of Hungarian-origin).  Here again is the boomerang for the idolizers of “Mr. Strauss,” this time not about esoterica, but in terms of his ordinary, nationalist or assimilating prejudices. Members of an oppressed status who have some exterior commonality with the oppressor (lighter skin for example) often look down on the more oppressed. The contempt these students of Strauss have for democracy and politics in Arendt’s sense comes back in Strauss to be directed at them.      

         Arendt also had some racism toward blacks, perhaps her most reactionary and in any case, unreflective opinion.  She too easily assumed that because of being a jew and identifying with blacks as oppressed, she could escape the racism of European culture.   For instance,  in On Violence, her attacks were mainly on militant black students, belittling African culture  – she valued the idealism of white students, not of blacks.  I should say: James Cheney who died with my friend Andrew Goodman in Philadelphia, Mississippi, was, in every way, as admirable and idealistic a person.  The parents of Cheney and Michael Schwerner wanted them buried side by side, but the segregationist graveyards in Mississippi forbade it.  James Cheney is typical of students in the civil rights and radical movements.  One has to have avoided, as Arendt did, the civil rights movement to have as crass and stupid an attitude. 

         In “Reflections on Little Rock,”  Arendt focused on a photo of Elizabeth Eckford, isolated from the other 8 students and surrounded by a mob (a decent white woman came, got her up from where she had seated herself, pushed through the mob and got her on a bus). Eckford and the others suffered greatly (see “Eyes on the Prize”).  But these children grew into adults who have spoken about their endurance and even heroism in this struggle for many years.  The greatness of politics, as Arendt suggests, shines through them.  Their tale - and not Arendt’s merely private one - is the public narrative. 

        In contrast even to the American Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education, a court not generally responsible for deep political understandings, Arendt mistakenly distinguished between public facilities (buses) and private or social ones (schools).  Integrating buses in Montgomery was okay for Arendt (young people would do this, too, in the Freedom Rides), but she apologized for bigoted association as an ostensible matter of privacy to schools.

         But education is the future of these children and the society.  Education is public and if otherwise, in basic ways, guided by public norms (no racism), or it destroys the society.  Since education is, as Plato’s Laws tells us, as important an activity as there is among humans, to be excluded from education with others, to be pushed off as lesser beings in separate and miserable schools, is a dramatic attack on self-respect (as Kenneth and Mamie Clarks’ doll studies reveal).  See here.  And such mis-education says everything about what is wrong with a society that enshrines it.   

       But as Roger emphasizes, in response to penetrating criticism, Arendt could rethink her attitude to some extent:

       “In 1965, Arendt read Ralph Ellison’s comment on her essay published in Robert Penn Warren’s Who Speaks for the Negro. In a letter to Ellison, she writes: ‘You are entirely right: it is precisely this ‘ideal of sacrifice’ which I didn’t understand.’ The many criticisms leveled by her liberal friends didn’t bother her, but Ellison convinced her that ‘I simply didn’t understand the complexities in the situation.’” But she never lost her hostility to integration in the schools (this remains in the re-segregated America of today an enormous issue.  See Jonathan Kozol, The Shame of the Nation: the Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America which shows that segregation in American urban schools has now reached the same dimensions as in 1968, the year Martin King was assassinated).

       Strauss fostered segregation even more actively than Arendt.  As advisor to his student Robert Goldwin, he instigated a Public Affairs forum  among  powerful politicians and businessmen for the segregationist James Kilpatrick, unchallenged, to speak at.  As a scholar or “philosopher,” Strauss was no bigot. He did not have to take up the cause of lynching in America just as he did not have to take up brutalizing Palestinians.  But he did.  With Schmitt, he sought the enemy.   Strauss was a reactionary, one might say, drawn to reaction. 

      Goldwin published a series of edited collections from these conferences and one can read Kilpatrick’s bombast on states' rights in A Nation of States, 1963.  Strauss is well known for offering intelligent criticisms of the idea of a value-free social science.  But, he mistakenly interpreted Brown v. Board of Education as a leading consequence of corrupt, “value free” social science. As I have emphasized in "Sotomayor, Brown v. Board of Education, Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s doll studies, and Leo Strauss" here,  the doll studies, revealing the harms of segregation to the self-respect of black children, did not purport to be value-free (if Strauss had read them, his critique of social science missed the target here).  More importantly, the Clarks' were right about racism, and Strauss was wrong.

        Arendt and Strauss were, nonetheless, quite close in criticizing the idea of value freedom.  Arendt speaks philosophically of a judgment beyond prejudice, a judgment that disinterestedly (as in Kant; or one might later say with Rawls, putting oneself in the original position) takes account of the ideas of others, arrives through thinking, at the idea of a common sense (this is also what Aristotle means by a philosopher considering clashing opinions about justice and arriving at a common good).  In judgment, one goes beyond one’s prejudices. Like Strauss, Arendt thus aptly eschews the affectation of neutrality, an alleged freedom from values, as in fact, resistant to thinking and reaffirming one’s prejudices.  As Roger puts it in response to a question from Scott:

        “There is no idea more central to Arendt’s political thought than judgment. Judgment requires, above all, what Kant called disinterestedness and what Arendt called seeing the question also from another’s point of view. Judgment is not mere personal taste or preference. To judge is to speak the truth, a truth that must always appeal to a common sense beyond one’s own prejudices.”

        “Arendt identifies the lack of judgment today—what you [Scott] refer to as the liberal predilection for suspending judgment—as one of the gravest dangers we face. This fear of judgment has two sources. First, the rise of social science and determinism explains all behavior via calculable norms so that individuals seem less accountable. This results in the classic liberal fear of judging those whose actions emerge from socially determined circumstances. Second, judgment is hindered by our belief in equality. To judge another requires the confidence and pride that one knows better. There is an arrogance to judging that is increasingly absent in our times.”

        But Roger is mistaken about this second point which does not sufficiently differentiate among cases.  Many times, facts reinforce moral judgments when these are true, for instance, as egalitarian sentiments and judgments tend to be – see my Democratic Individuality, ch. 1 and 3.  For instance, egalitarian judgment, upon reflection, for instance, about segregation and Arendt’s attitude towards it, is hardly hindered by our initial inclination toward equality. Likewise, our dislike of patriarchal oppression is aptly reinforced both by Arendt’s thinking and the stupidity of Strauss’s prejudice against women philosophers.  

        This is also what Rawls means by certain deep moral intuitions which we are comparatively reluctant to change (ones whose truth has, perhaps surprisingly, been borne out in many circumstance).  Rawls is mistaken to speak of these as intuitions since homophobia is also, for some, a powerful, immoral – fake moral - intuition.  In a Platonic idiom, Roger’s way of putting it conflates true opinion which is sometimes the case with mere opinion or prejudice.  Arendt’s notion of judgment is a variant on Aristotle, Kant, Rawls, Socrates, Plato and many others; it distinguishes thinking from embroidering bigotry.

         And there is nothing arrogant in standing up for the truth (think again of Andrew Goodman, James Cheney and Michael Schwerner).

         Ironically, Arendt who celebrates the polis and thus Aristotle’s thought that humans are political animals [“man is a political animal”] misses the centrality of the idea of  common good in Aristotle’s conception of politics.  One might also say: the idea of a common good is the idea of justice. (Arriving at a common good is what Aristotle, rather than Heidegger, means by the idea of thinking about the good, or in Arendt’s sense about judgment; it is ironic that she does not see this).   Defending a common good (justice)  differentiates the French Resistance from the Hitler Youth or Vichy, makes participation in the former life-giving, and in the latter, extinguishes the soul.  In this error, she follows Heidegger.  As Strauss said later exoterically, Hitler made the previous democracies look like a golden age.  But Arendt never had any doubt about that.  She gives beautiful words to the movements which, against all odds, rise up to sustain democracy.  She had the virtues of nihilism according to Strauss in 1941 – of the young who would have admired Churchill, who spoke even in defeat of the greatness of standing up. See "The courage to destroy" here.   But she did not have its defects.  

*As a reader, Strauss sought to emulate Heidegger.  But his differentiation of  the surface and hidden meanings - "exoteric writing" - comes from Plato and medieval Platonists, and is a genuine scholarly discovery.  In this sense, Strauss, too, is a creative Heideggerian. 

**On April 22, 1964, Bloom expressed his worshipful reaction to Strauss as a kind of magical rabbi:

      “Now in reflecting on my first acquaintance with you, I set aside all those little external facts which Freudians would call causes but which I have come to recognize as mere conditions. And the absolute beginning was a day when I went to visit your course on the Republic in Winter of 1950.  I had heard of you; I didn’t go to hear the lectures on natural Right because I thought the notion foolish and dangerous.  I was 19 and had no idea what I was doing; I just wanted to know the deepest things,  whatever they might be.  I was supposed to be interested in Greek things, so I decided to hear your course one afternoon.  I don’t remember what you were saying, but I was literally enchanted.  I sat there smiling, so stupidly that you finally stopped to ask me what was so funny. One might say that all that has happened since and taken me so far from anything I could have imagined is merely the consequence of what was implied in that smile.  The impression I had was that old things became new – that the combination of the ancestral and wise I longed for were united in you.  Proverbs which had come to seem boring and senseless, took on life and meaning in your mouth.  I suppose one could say that I saw in you what I had in vain searched for in rabbis but which I knew to be their vocation – science and piety, learning of a synoptic variety about the things of this world.  My previous experiences were a little like Madame Bovary when she went to see the priest for spiritual sustenance; there was such a disproportion between his claims and his being.  It was more my ahnung [surmise] of that proportion in you than any doctrine which drew me to you.  After that there was no question in my mind that I was wedded to you, that I had to know at least something of what you knew.  And I can truthfully say I have never been disappointed in the deeper sense.  I have always and continuously seen in you the activity of the philosophic muse, and the awareness of that possibility has transformed my world and tachlis [highest goal].  I stayed because there was no alternative; and I am still there.  I suppose the fact that I was somehow a Jew and respected the rabbinic idea provided the essential precondition."

This is not seeking to understand someone’s thought so much as to merge with  or "marry" his being.   One might speak of Bloom as a Straussophant.  No such reactions are visible in Arendt’s students or even in Heidegger’s; the latter’s students, for instance, Marcuse, Arendt, Jonas, Strauss, and at a greater distance Tillich and Sartre made their own mark as thinkers in a way that Strauss’s students, even where they make considerable scholarly contributions, do not.

 

 

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