Published online by Cambridge University Press: 15 February 2018
In 1935 Strauss wrote, “Maimonides’ rationalism is the true natural model, the standard to be carefully protected from any distortion, and thus the stumbling- block on which modern rationalism falls.” That Strauss maintained this view until the end of his life is hinted at by the appearance of three pieces on Maimonides (one more piece even than the two on Plato) in Strauss's last volume, Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy. Although it might be more convenient if we could explain succinctly just how modern rationalism stumbles before Maimonides's rationalism, unfortunately, there are conflicting views on Strauss's interpretation of modern rationalism and especially about whether those views changed over the course of his oeuvre. Without attempting to settle those debates, we will pause to highlight some of the deficiencies of modern rationalism that Strauss identifies explicitly. One he identifies from the beginning to the end of his oeuvre, which he borrows from Lessing: modern rationalism wins out against revelation by the Napoleonic strategy of laughing revelation out of court. In other words, it does not engage in a genuine confrontation with revelation. Perhaps Maimonides does.
Another deficiency of modern rationalism is indicated indirectly in Strauss's critique of Julius Guttmann, the renowned scholar of the history of Jewish thought, in chapter 1 of Philosophy and Law. According to Strauss, Guttmann is unable to understand Maimonides on his own terms because he understands him in light of late modern philosophy of religion. That philosophy of religion takes as its primary object of study the subjective experience of the religious believer. In modern consciousness, this subjective experience is private. The focus of Maimonides is not something private but that most public of all features of life, divine law (PL, 73). Here we approach more closely the focus of this chapter. It is closely related to another important deficiency of modern rationalism that Strauss identifies: modern rationalism is confident in modernity's moral progress over premodern civilization.