Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
17.10.13, Parens, Leo Strauss and the Recovery of Medieval Political Philosophy

17.10.13, Parens, Leo Strauss and the Recovery of Medieval Political Philosophy

This book is the first in a new series called Rochester Studies in Medieval Political Thought, which is co-edited by its author and published in conjunction with Boydell 7#38; Brewer in the United Kingdom. As its title suggests, the volume is a work of tertiary scholarship. That is, its purpose is not to articulate an independent interpretation of some set of political ideas or texts dating to the Middle Ages. Rather, Joshua Parens aims to elucidate the reading of medieval Jewish and Islamic political philosophy--primarily (indeed, almost exclusively) encapsulated in the writings of Maimonides and Alfarabi--through the lens afforded by the twentieth-century political theorist Leo Strauss (1899-1973). The "recovery" contained in the title refers specifically to the way(s) in which Strauss returned time and again to these two thinkers in order to examine what he termed "the theologico-political problem" (1). As Parens is quick to admit, "Strauss avoids defining the problem"--intentionally, the author suggests--leaving it to his readers to piece together" (1). This is presumably an illustration of Strauss's well-known (and highly controversial) esotericism, according to which the "true" message of an author's text cannot be gleaned simply from a superficial reading of it. Instead, the "real" meaning of a work of classic political philosophy is to be found in what such a writing does not say. An instance of the Straussian hermeneutic, as proposed by Parens, arises from the alleged rejection of divine revelation by the two great Islamic and Jewish thinkers: "...philosophers in those communities run the risk of persecution if they do not conceal their unwillingness to accept the victory of revelation. In other words, they must adopt esotericism" (41).

The merits of Strauss's mode of interpretation have been disputed for decades and I do not presume to survey the attendant debates. Rather, I hope to reveal some of the limitations inherent in Parens' approach. The most obvious of these stems from his assertion, following Strauss, that there is a fundamental chasm between the philosophers taken as key to Jewish and Islamic traditions, on the one side, and those associated with Christian scholasticism, on the other. Where the former, as just mentioned, were compelled by fear of persecution to engage in an esoteric exercise, the latter had "no need for esotericism" (41-42). Why? Because, Parens observes, scholasticism "kept philosophy in subordination" to Christian revelation," even though Thomists claimed to have achieved a synthesis of reason and faith (41, 3-4). Parens takes this to be "obvious," yet he admits that he is "no expert in Christian Scholasticism" (3). Careful study of medieval Christian philosophy, however, reveals such a claim as a caricature, not least because it treats scholasticism as of a piece, rather than in its profound diversity. Moreover, the ideas associated with the schools, presumably with the University of Paris (founded ca. 1200) at its epicenter, were hardly the only game in town, philosophically speaking. To say otherwise would be to impugn the contributions of twelfth-century thinkers of considerable influence such as Peter Abelard and John of Salisbury as well as of "heretical," or at least unconventional, Christian philosophers such as William of Ockham, John of Jandun or (most striking of all) Marsilgio (Marsilius) of Padua (the latter of whom receives exactly four brief references in Parens's book, while the others earn precisely none).

To paint medieval philosophy with a broad stroke in this way can only be posited, as Parens suggests, "if we are to trust Strauss," or at any rate the position that this book ascribes to Strauss (3; emphasis added). It is worthy of note that Strauss himself authored the chapter on "Marsilius of Padua" in the History of Political Philosophy volume edited by him and Joseph Cropsey--an item that appears nowhere in the book's notes or bibliography. Parens attempts to save appearances in an endnote by remarking that "Strauss did not argue that this divide between Christianity and Judaism/Islam is rigid... Nevertheless, he does argue that the prevailing approach in Christianity, on the one hand, and Judaism and Islam, on the other, follows this pattern" (155). These are surely weasel words written to protect Strauss and his acolytes from counterexamples that might lead to the charge of cherry picking. But this is precisely what Strauss (and Parens with him) does. (I might point out that Strauss is not alone in succumbing to this temptation; several prominent non-Straussian medievalists of the twentieth century--think of Walter Ullmann and Brian Tierney--stand properly accused of doing likewise.) There are two further considerations relevant to the narrow choice of texts that Strauss foregrounds. The first is the Christian reception of Islamic commentaries on the works of Aristotle, most especially Averroes (Ibn Rushd), who came to be known in the Latin West as "The Commentator" and of whom there is little discussion in this book. Second, Parens seems oblivious to the presence of a large body of inter-religious dialogues composed by faithful adherents to the Roman church (but also, for example, by Jews), many of which do not fit into the easy didactic model of the defeat of adversaries (and even non-canonical interlocutors such as Armenians) by the superior reasoning of the orthodox Christian participant in the discussion. Parens seems to treat the Islamic, Jewish, and Christian worlds as hermetically sealed during the Middle Ages. To assert such a position is, of course, inaccurate at best and nonsense at worst. Does Parens know better? I cannot help thinking that he surely does--he is after all an accomplished senior scholar--so I am left in something of a quandary about whether there is an agenda to which, lacking Straussian initiation, I lack access.

All of this leads me to an additional criticism. Insofar as Parens has written a work of tertiary scholarship, his volume makes no attempt to adopt an independent stance vis-à-vis Strauss's understanding and appropriation of the medieval political philosophers whom he addresses. This is an odd way in which to conduct a scholarly endeavor. If the author had, at least in part, directed a critical eye to the Straussian project, he might have brought something of use to the table. But insofar as I have observed, the volume is entirely expository. It contains little more than a reconstruction of Strauss's views, presumably as an attempt to offer some definition to the unarticulated concept of the "theologico-political problem" previously mentioned. The only time when Parens steps away from exposition is to defend Strauss against a few scholars who were roughly his contemporaries and who adopted alternative positions. These include some of the finest historians of medieval philosophy (non-Western as well as Western) of the twentieth century, including (but not limited to) E. I. J Rosenthal, Richard Walzer, and H. A. Wolfson (49-54). Parens does not seem ready to concede any points whatsoever to such scholars at the expense of Strauss. (There is also a substantial Appendix in which Parens responds from a Straussian perspective to the work of Sholomo Pines, who published a series of important articles on Maimonides just prior to and then after Strauss's death.) Of perhaps even greater concern, Parens confines citations to secondary scholars (evident in the bibliography) almost entirely to others whose work derives from the same general (i.e., Straussian) line of interpretation. There is, therefore, something of an echo chamber emanating from the book. This is a shame because there has been a great deal recent literature (some very critical of Strauss) relevant to the topic of this volume. As an example, I refer the reader to Well Begun is Only Half Done edited by Vasileois Syros (published in 2011 and thus readily available to Parens) and to the copious references in its chapters to a vast body of relevant scholarship. The first chapter of the aforementioned collection, by Syros himself, takes special aim at the limitations of the Straussian reading of medieval political philosophy. I am also aghast that the work of eminent scholars such as Oliver Leaman, Patricia Crone and Antony Black (to name just a few) goes unacknowledged.

By way of conclusion, Parens' agenda may be of interest to those already initiated into the Straussian hermeneutic, but it does little for the rest of us who toil in the wider field of the study of medieval political thought. Given the rapid expansion of interest in medieval political ideas over the course of the past two generations, I commend University of Rochester Press for commissioning a series on this topic. I also hope that the series co-editor in his forward may be taken at his word: "We do, however, want to be clear that the series is not restricted to Straussian views of medieval political philosophy. Indeed, it would be a mistake to conclude that Strauss and his students are the only scholars working to provide the contemporary world with a clearer understanding of the insights of medieval political thinkers" (xii). I fear that the initial volume in the series, given its unvarnished genuflection to Strauss, offers little reason for confidence in this declaration. Perhaps scholars of a non-Straussian orientation will be tempted to test my hypothesis. Honestly, I wish that I could do so myself. But as a denizen of a political science department that takes as its current paradigm something called the "Theory of Decision Making with Imperfect Information," normative (let alone historical) scholarship is, I am afraid, a non-starter.