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A commitment to method is one of Spinoza’s philosophical signatures. Yet surprisingly little has been written about Spinoza’s method for the study of politics. In this context, the Political Treatise emerges as a crucial text for understanding Spinoza’s method, because it is the lone text in which Spinoza opines on proper approaches to the study of politics. In this chapter, Cooper examines the techniques that Spinoza employs in the Political Treatise. When compared to the Theologico-Political Treatise, the Political Treatise is notable for its abstraction, for the negligible work performed by history and experience. Cooper highlights Spinoza’s abstract turn in an effort to temper some of the revolutionary fervor that surrounds Spinoza’s unfinished work. In the Political Treatise, dispensing with an abstract theory of right does not usher in a permanent revolution. Rather, it licenses abstraction from historical contingency in a quest for modes of argument – whether deductive or empirical – powerful enough to forestall controversy and dissent.
Histories of political theory have framed the story of the emergence of sovereign states and sovereign selves as a story about secularization—specifically, a story that equates secularization with self-deification. Thomas Hobbes's investment in modesty and humility demonstrates the need for, and the possibility of, an alternative secularization narrative. Scholars have long insisted that “vainglory” is a key term for the interpretation of Leviathan. But Hobbes's task is not complete once he has discredited vainglory. Hobbes must also envision, and cultivate, contrary virtues—and modesty is one virtue that Hobbes would cultivate. An analysis of Hobbes's attempt to redefine and rehabilitate the virtues of modesty shows that Hobbes warns against the temptation to self-deification. In Leviathan, the political task is not to enthrone humans in sovereign invulnerability, but rather to achieve the right balance between bodily security and consciousness of finitude.
Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan offers the fiercest modern indictment against pride. Yet seventeenth-century polemicists and contemporary historians of political theory agree that arrogance is one of Hobbes's stylistic signatures. Does Hobbes, the author, fail to practise the modesty which he preaches to political subjects? Against critical consensus, I argue that Hobbes devises protocols of literary self-presentation consistent with his arguments for modesty. I make this argument by way of a close reading of Hobbes's Latin verse autobiography. Although the autobiography is usually cited as evidence of Hobbes's vanity, I read it as Hobbes's perverse profession of modesty. In the autobiography, Hobbes shuns the role of hero, casting himself as a ‘poor worm’ whose endeavours are motivated by fear. Acute consciousness of mortality, rather than lust for renown, moves Hobbes to philosophize. With this account of the affective springs of his own philosophy, Hobbes redefines the political theorist's vocation. Breaking with traditions that define political theory as a vehicle for heroic self-display, Hobbes defines political theory as a vocation for ordinary mortals.
Leo Strauss and Emmanuel Levinas: Philosophy and the Politics
of Revelation. By Leora Batnitzky. New York: Cambridge
University Press, 2006. 304p. $80.00.
In recent years, Leo Strauss has achieved a posthumous
success de scandal as the (purported)
philosophical architect of neoconservatism. Strauss's works have
been scrutinized by detractors and partisans to determine whether he
bears responsibility for the Bush administration's foreign policy.
Amidst the clamor, however, more measured assessments are starting
to emerge. Today, the most provocative appraisals of his work come
from scholars in Jewish studies, as Leora Batnitzky's fascinating
book attests. In Leo Strauss and Emmanuel Levinas,
Batnitzky seeks to establish Strauss's contribution to modern Jewish
thought, but her argument for his importance as a Jewish thinker
also reframes the vexed question of his legacy for American
politics. She offers a nonpolemical, non-Straussian defense of Leo
Strauss. In many ways, her portrait of Strauss as a philosophical
skeptic and political moderate resonates with that of Steven B.
Smith, in Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy,
Judaism (2006). However, Batnitzky departs from Smith
(and, indeed, from most readers of Strauss) when she hails Strauss
as the most ardent philosophical defender of Jewish revelation in
the modern period.
For too long, scholars have denied that “Jewish political thought” constitutes a viable field of study. Without a sovereign state, scholars argue, Jews lacked occasion to debate the questions of power, obligation, and authority that preoccupy Western political theorists. The Jewish Political Tradition offers a devastating rebuttal to this argument, for it reconstructs a continuous and vibrant tradition of Jewish political thought. Edited jointly by Michael Walzer, an eminent political theorist, and Israeli scholars associated with the Shalom Hartman Institute, this ambitious anthology (two of four volumes have now been published) pairs pri-mary texts spanning Jewish history with commentary by contemporary scholars. Uncovering political reflection in genres previously ghettoized as legalistic or theological (e.g. Midrash, responsa, biblical exegesis), the editors open up an exciting field for research. But The Jewish Political Tradition is not merely of scholarly interest. Inviting readers “to join the arguments of the texts, to interpret and evaluate, to revise or reject, the claims made by their authors,” the editors insist that the tradition remains a vital resource for contemporary Jews (8). Indeed, the project makes an audacious (and salutary) contribution to Israeli debates: Against advocates of a state ruled by halakhah, the editors contend that traditional Jewish texts sanction toleration, pluralism, and the secularization of politics.
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