Persecution and the Art of writing

By Leo Strauss

The University of Chicago Press, 1980, 204 pages


Reviewed by Israel Drazin


            This book, first published in 1952, is a classic that is quoted frequently when people ask: do philosophers say what they really believe or do they hide the truth? Strauss explains that philosophers have to hide the truth from the general public because they are unable to understand the truths that philosophers know. In fact, philosophers are “in grave danger” when they tell the truth. When the public hears the truth they feel threatened and may feel like killing the individual speaking to them, as they did with Socrates in 399 BCE. Strauss gives many examples of this phenomenon. He stresses that “’all ancient philosophers’ had distinguished between their exoteric (open) and their esoteric (hidden, true) teaching.” The general public needs to be deceived and taught only “essential truths,” not real truths, what some philosophers called “the noble lie,” what Spinoza and others described as “legitimate ruses.” The essential truths aid the masses in living a reasonably good and safe life. “They (the philosophers) believed that the gulf separating ‘the wise’ and ‘the vulgar’ was a basic fact of human nature which could not be influenced by any progress of popular education.”

Strauss points out how Socrates’ pupil Plato (429-347) hid his true opinions, covered them in a protective “armor,” and “avoided the conflict with the vulgar and thus the fate of Socrates.” One of the great philosophers al-Farabi (870-950), whom the great Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) admired, “pronounces more or less orthodox views concerning the life after death,” that the soul is immortal, in his book that he expected the public to read, but in his book for scholars “declares that there is only the happiness of this life, and that all divergent statements are based on ‘ravings and old women’s tales.’”  

People can see Strauss’ understanding in my review of Ibn Tufayl by Hayy ibn Yaqzan or in the book itself, which dramatizes the problem with a fictional drama that is similar to Daniel Defoe’s The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. The book is most likely the most important book written about philosophy.

Strauss has an introductory essay followed by a discussion of the writings of Maimonides, Halevi, and Spinoza. He gives many examples of how Maimonides and Spinoza hid their true views in order to protect themselves from the general not-learned population. He offers some ideas on how to uncover Maimonides’ the true teachings, such as analyzing seeming repetition carefully because only one of them adds a point that is Maimonides’ true view: “the purpose of repeating conventional statements is to hide the disclosure, in the repetition, of unconventional views.” Put differently, “a considerable number of statements are made in order to hide the truth rather than teach it.” Readers must also, among other devises, pay attention to apparent contradictions that Maimonides himself said he purposely inserted into his writing to hide his true message. One of his tricks is to state the conventional idea often, such as his frequent mention of angels, as if such beings actually exist, but mention the truth infrequently, that an “angel” is any force of nature that carries out the natural law, such as the wind and rain.

            Since the thinkers’ views are hidden in this way, Strauss recognizes the problem, that “reading between the lines will not lead to complete agreement among all scholars.” Thus it is no surprise that Maimonides, who hid his real understandings and who, like al-Farabi made contradictory statements to appease the masses, is misunderstood by so many people, including scholars who debate what the “great eagle” is really saying.

            What does Strauss understand is Maimonides’ ultimate teaching? “Above all, in the last chapter of the Guide (3:54) he asserts that most precepts of the law (meaning, the Torah and the rabbinical commands) are merely a means for the acquisition of moral virtue, which, in turn, is merely a means subservient to the true end, namely, speculative virtue, or the true knowledge of things divine.” Since Maimonides states elsewhere that it is impossible for humans to know God, the “things divine” are the laws of nature, such as physics.

Once the fact that all the ancient philosophers hid the truth from the masses because they could not understand and could not accept it, thinking people should realize that the Bible also must hide the real truth and only tell the public as much of the truth that will help them live a good and safe life, “essential truths.” In fact, Strauss, as others such as Joseph ibn Kaspi (circa 1279-1340) before him, writes that Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed is a document where the great eagle explains some of the secrets of the Torah, but only with hints, in an esoteric way.