The main theme of the book is the philosophic life and its relation to revealed religion. According to Meier, Leo Strauss was a philosopher, a term the author does not use lightly. Strauss was a philosopher in part because he "grasped philosophy as a way of life" and "reawakened the awareness that philosophy has to prove its rationality elenctically," that is, through refutations of fundamental alternatives. To be a philosopher is to live a life that is "grounded in unreserved questioning and stops at no answer that owes its authentication to an authority."
Meier observes that even among the very few philosophers of the 20th century, Strauss was unique in rekindling the quarrel between the ancients and moderns and the issue behind that quarrel. As Meier argues, reopening that quarrel is fundamentally the same as engaging in "the confrontation with the challenge of revelation." But why should revelation be seen as a challenge to philosophy?
According to Meier, the challenge is twofold. First, there is the theoretical challenge: if there is an omnipotent God in whose hands the universe is putty, there are no knowable necessities and the philosopher's pursuit of knowledge of these necessities is futile. As Meier puts it, "no philosopher has recalled with greater urgency than Strauss that ‘being based on belief is fatal to any philosophy.'" Then there is the existential challenge: since revelation requires above all unquestioning obedience (a central claim of Meier's), the philosopher's apparently disobedient free inquiry might be subject to severe punishment—nothing less than eternal damnation.
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As serious as these challenges are, both Meier and Strauss seem to think that philosophy requires its followers to seek from revelation even more radical challenges. But in their efforts to heighten the confrontation between reason and revelation, Meier and Strauss may exaggerate the challenge posed by revelation to philosophy. In his remarkable lecture on "Reason and Revelation," for example, Strauss emphasizes Luther, Kierkegaard, and the author of the Book of Genesis, each of whom rejects the possibility of a necessary ascent from natural knowledge to revelation. Strauss neglects Thomas Aquinas, who thought otherwise. Why? Aquinas's view, which is friendlier to reason, may for that very reason be unfriendlier to philosophy: the philosopher's pursuit of self-knowledge is as encouraged by the most radical challenge as it is discouraged by half-hearted harmonizations.
Consider, in this connection, an argument found in another essay by Strauss, "Progress or Return?"
The revealed law is either fully rational—in that case it is a product of reason—or it is not fully rational—in that case it may as well be the product of human unreason as of divine super-reason. Still more generally, revelation is either a brute fact, to which nothing in purely human experience corresponds—in that case it is an oddity of no human importance—or it is a meaningful fact, a fact required by human experience to solve the fundamental problems of man.... It would then appear that it is impossible for reason, for philosophy, to assent to revelation as revelation.
This kind of reasoning may explain why Strauss does not spend more time on the Catholic view. It would also mean that the most tenable position on behalf of revelation would be the most absurd one, though not so absurd as to become an "oddity of no human importance." As Strauss writes, "[t]o exclude the possibility of refutation [of revelation] radically, there is only one way: that faith has no basis whatever in human knowledge of actual things. This view of faith is not the Jewish and the Catholic one." In other words, the Jewish and Catholic view (the more reasonable view) cannot exclude the possibility of a refutation of revelation.
Strauss's approach to the possibility of revelation—what he calls the approach of "the Greek philosopher"—involves a close examination of the moral presuppositions of the Jewish and Christian revelations, through which Strauss uncovers the "absolute" importance of morality for revelation. This belief in the absolute importance of morality is what Strauss calls "the basic fallacy of faith." He then proceeds, as Meier shows, to defend the possibility that philosophy is trans-moral and that the philosopher sees morality as "not something valuable in itself."
But even supposing Strauss is right that the idea of morality implied in the Bible and in belief in the biblical God is unintelligible, does this not leave intact Luther's or Kierkegaard's absurdist theology? After all, Strauss's conclusion rests on an examination of the humanly intelligible elements of revelation and belief in revelation. In "Progress or Return," Strauss writes: "God's ways may seem to be foolish to man; this does not mean that they are foolish. Natural theology would have to get rid, in other words, of God's incomprehensibility in order to refute revelation, and that it has never done." A "most serious difficulty" for "natural theology," he writes, is that God "may be said to be inscrutable." Or as he puts it in his commentary on the Euthyphro, "Is one not bound to contradict oneself when trying to communicate the incommunicable?"
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While God's unfathomable character is something a sincere believer may well accept, Strauss invites us, in focusing on the importance of "the moral criterion" for revelation, to ask whether a sincere believer could also accept that the notions of justice and goodness taught by the Bible are fundamentally mysterious. According to Strauss, Luther himself considered it to be "an indubitable fact" that every human being "experiences something of the reality of God" in his moral conscience. The philosopher would deny that.
Meier makes many striking claims in this book. But the most striking, especially when juxtaposed, come from Strauss's own hand:
A philosophy which believes that it can refute the possibility of revelation—and a philosophy which does not believe that: this is the real meaning of la querelle des anciens et des modernes.
[The] [p]ossibility of refutation of revelation [is] implied in Platonic-Aristotelian philosophy.
This excellent book, for which everyone interested in Strauss and the theologico-political problem should be grateful, helps us ponder these claims. And, in part through its austere precision, it reinforces Strauss's remark that, however familiar one may become with the arguments adumbrated in the book, "refutations are cheap and usually not worth the paper on which they are written" unless they result in a fundamental change in orientation, a "liberation."