By Kalev Pehme
Leo Strauss has the uncanny ability to make the unorthodox seem orthodox. In his treasure-trove of an essay, “Jerusalem and Athens,” Strauss provides us with one of the strangest examinations of the Bible, but he makes it seem completely normal. First, Strauss does not consider the Bible history, in the modern sense of the word or even in the ancient sense. He likens the Bible to “memories of ancient histories,” adopting the atheist Machiavelli’s term in the Discourses. Machiavelli uses it in the following way: “Infinite examples read in the memories of ancient histories demonstrate how much difficulty there is for a people used to living under a prince to preserve its freedom afterward, if by some accident it acquires it, as Rome acquired it after the expulsion of the Tarquins.” “Memories of ancient histories” may mean that there are memories within ancient histories or it may mean that there are memories of ancient histories with an implication that these histories may not be around any more.
When Strauss clarifies he writes: “Let us grant that the Bible and in particular the Torah consists to a considerable extent of ‘memories of ancient histories,’ even of memories of memories; but memories of memories are not necessarily distorting of pale reflections of the original; they may be re-collections or re-collections, deepenings through the meditation of the primary experiences.” Strauss knows, of course, that memory and recollection are two different things. A memory is about the past and something that has happened in the past. As Aristotle teaches, a memory is like a persistent image or picture of something that happened. In memory, we often attempt to re-experience what happened in the past. Recollection, however, is an active search for knowledge, and often that search is for something that one has not experienced or known and hence is not a memory at all. In Plato’s Republic, in the example of the divided line, the lowest section belongs to the natural images of the world that are illuminated by the Sun. An image is not the same thing as the original. Memories contain such images and these images are not what they are of.
The double-character of the image also admits to human examination with our perceptions and that examination ultimately makes us see not only various attributes about things, but to see contradictions in the relations between things, as well as what their numbers are. Our thinking leads to looking for and discovering an order that comprehends the contradictions. Our thinking also creates images that aid in our remembrance of what we have learned. We interpret what we learn and image them and we trust or have faith in these images in the same way that we trust or have faith in the images of the natural world we see, for example, reflected in a puddle of water. In recollection, we attempt ultimately to relate the visible to the invisible in a way that enables us to see what is image and what is the original. In the end, ultimately we recollect knowledge that we already had and forgot, so to speak, because what is intelligible and what can be known is the very divine mind to which our souls in their individuality must acquire or recollect. Recollection, unlike memory, is an act of the soul that shares in that divine mind and is a part of our timeless immortality.
Moreover, Strauss does something cagey as well. He uses the hyphenated re-collection that gives a sense of collecting pieces again. This view adumbrates Strauss’s later and very radical statement: “The Bible on the other hand is not a book. The utmost one could say is that it is a collection of books. But are all parts of that collection books? Is in particular the Torah a book? Is it not rather the work of an unknown compiler or of unknown compilers who wove together writings and oral traditions of unknown origin? Is this not the reason why the Bible can contain fossils [like the references to other gods] that are at variance even with its fundamental teaching regarding God?” The basic reality, Strauss tells us, is that the Bible has notable contradictions, because of the original compilers were so pious that they could not rationalize the works that they compiled.
This astonishing notion flies in the face of the obvious, i.e., that Moses wrote the Torah, including the part where he writes about his death. There is only one Moses, and he is not a compiler. Moreover, Strauss also goes beyond the usual view of the Bible. Strauss denies that the Bible is miraculous or even to the point of denying that there are any real miracles in the Bible. He does so not in an anti-theological way, but because a miracle “presupposes that of nature and the concept of nature of foreign to the Bible.” There is no nature in the Bible. The great Greek philosopher Herodotus was the first man to examine in detail the difference between nature and convention. The Bible does not make that distinction. Moreover, Strauss tells us that the Bible contains no poetry, because the very character of poetry as it was understood in ancient time and modern times is alien to the Bible. We cannot read the Bible as if it were simply poetry, even the Psalms are songs.
Yet, the Bible is primarily “memories of ancient histories,” and because memory is always of a particular original things and preserved in the mind we have to assume that the Bible is either a remembrance that there were ancient histories or the content of these ancient histories/ But, at the same time, the Bible itself is not history, not poetry, and does not have a single author or editor. But the Bible is full of tales. Strauss, however, reads the Genesis as if it were a single book with a single writer. “‘In the beginning God created heaven and earth.’ Who says this? We are not told; hence we do not know. Does it make no difference who says it? This would be a philosopher’s reason; is it also the biblical reason? We are not told; hence we do not know. We have no right to assume that God said it, for the Bible introduces God’s saying with expressions like ‘God said.’ We shall then assume that the words were spoken by a nameless man.”
But underlying this problem is something that Strauss doesn’t say openly. Strauss asks, “Who says this?” He doesn’t say, “Who writes this?” Incorporeal beings like angels and god himself cannot speak as human beings do. We speak through a physical medium, a throat, voice box, and so on. We communicate to express our thoughts, volition, and emotions\, and we use symbols, moreover, to do so. Proceeding like Aristotle, we can say that a word, like a physical reality, has matter and a form. The word is a symbol whose matter is a sensible sign, and its matter is imposed on it by convention. By understanding word and its nature, we see that the word imitates all of reality that is constituted of matter and form. The matter of language are both the sounds and the alphabet we use; the form of the language is meaning and we can distinguish in language what is essence and what is particular and individual. If we accept the notion of recollection as Plato understands it, and we accept that although language is conventional and particular, but is yet connected to the whole of things are both physical and noetic, then it is true that we can, in truth, know the whole of things, the position that Athens takes with respect against Jerusalem.
Both the Bible and the philosophers make a claim to wisdom, Strauss says, but the claim of the Bible comes from compiled “memories of ancient histories” which include the notion that the god in question can speak, say things. How man communicates with god of necessity be on another level than human language, perhaps in the way Moses comes face to face with the faceless god. Strauss goes through a number of other interpretations of the creation and his analysis culminates in the notion that man is the peak of creation. Man is made in god’s image, and then Strauss says something exceptionally telling: “Bisexuality is not a preserve of man; but only man’s bisexuality could give rise to the view there are gods and goddesses: there is no biblical word for ‘goddess.’ Hence creation is not begetting.”
Here, Strauss carefully walks around the problem but points to it. What is the human form? A man who is both man and woman (not a hermaphrodite) does not exist in nature. The question then goes to the obvious problem. The bisexual man is an “idea.” But, then, we have to ask whether there is an idea of man. The idea of man we frequently get is a cosmic man, an Adam Kadmon, for example. Another example is the highly comic circle men in Aristophanes’s speech in the Symposium. In other words, the original man, the original Adam, is not a man. Our human shape is a completely individual thing and it is corporeal. The Adam that is created technically speaking cannot have a body. As soon as we speak of a man or a woman, we are speaking of something that is not an idea, but individual human corporeal beings. Moreover, Adam cannot be a sexual being, even though he has both sexes. We can see this line of thinking between the lines here, because Strauss does not make it explicit, but draws our attention to creation and begetting. To do what the Bible does, then, here is to make something noetic that is not noetic. If such a pattern and dynamic exists in the Bible, then we might have to draw the conclusion that the Bible rejects, that there are other gods. If man can be transformed into an idea, then, of course, it is possible for to create other noetic beings such as gods and goddesses. And this noetic man is made in god’s noetic image.
This entire argument is critical, because of what Strauss says later on in the essay about Plato’s theology. It is almost a throw-away line where Plato’s discussion of the education of the philosophers in the Republic “theology is replaced by the doctrine of the ideas.”
The conventional view of Plato (which is wrong) is that there are ideas for things in some kind of separate realm of ideas which we access. Some people still believe that there is a cosmic bed of which all other beds are just particulars. The actual doctrine of the ideas is the Platonic critique of that very notion. Yes, there are noetic things and a noetic cosmos; however, not everything in the universe has an idea hidden up in some kind of heaven. In part, Strauss is re-enforcing the view that Jerusalem is actually a discovery of Plato and that Jerusalem is a part of Athens where people believe in the ideas and morality instead of philosophy.
The kind of man Adam is, moreover, important for that part of Jerusalem that is morality. Following an argument that can be found in Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed, essentially, the argument presupposes that Adam (and Eve),now corporeal beings, fell because of a desire to be like god. In eating of the tree Adam and Eve acquire the knowledge of good and evil. But this knowledge is not the knowledge that Adam could have, i.e., the knowledge of what is correct and incorrect, true and false. Man fall is into morality, of world of good and evil, the true realm of god who later gives Abraham’s descendants the land of Canaan and the means to conquer it. It is the political world.
According to Strauss, the character of the god of Genesis and Exodus is “unfathomable” and he uses that epithet twice for god and the fall of man is part of that mystery. He notes later, “For almost all purposes the word of God as revealed to His prophets and especially to Moses became the source of knowledge of good and evil, the true tree of knowledge which is at the same time the tree of life.” Of course, if there is a tree of life, then we are all growing on it. God is unfathomable because of Strauss’s translation of god’s name, “I shall be What I shall be.” It seems to have a metaphysical cast, this name of god, “we hesitate to call it metaphysical, since the notion of physis is alien to the Bible.” Strauss draws out attention that the Bible is not a metaphysical text, which would mean that it would have to be reasonable. Metaphysics is the sacred science where man investigates the whole of things and how it hangs together, what the nature of things are, and ultimately provides man freedom and comprehensive knowledge. In effect, there is nothing unfathomable and everything can be questioned and must be questioned in metaphysics. The Bible is not a book of physics or metaphysics; it is not even a book. A metaphysical god like that of Aristotle is pure thought thinking itself, and that god is beyond good and evil and who doesn’t create the world, but is only the source and end of all motion and everything in the world including man is a slice of his thought. This god is knowable. The god of the Ten Commandments and all morality is not knowable and shall be what he shall be. That is what we learn from “memories of ancient histories.”