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511. Difficulty at the beginning (VII)

You have probably encountered the phrase “Athens and Jerusalem” at one time or another, especially if you cruise through mainstream conservative intellectual output—particularly from America. Usually, this expression is taken to be the crux of Western civilisation, so that when conservatives say that we need to “defend the West” they refer back to “Athens and Jerusalem”. At one level, the phrase is an excuse for earnest beard-tugging (for those of you lucky enough to be facially hirsute) over the clash between sceptical philosophy and religious faith. At another level, the phrase “Athens and Jerusalem” provides the intellectual substance for the expression “Judeo-Christian”.

The phrase was coined by Leo Strauss and although it is true that on one level it refers to the clash between sceptical philosophy and religious faith, at another level it refers to something quite different: namely, it explains how what unites Greek philosophy at the Hebrew Bible is a concern for the law—for justice. This sounds harmless enough; except that the concept excludes quite a few other things, and those things just happen to be essential to what we really mean by “the West”. These things include: manliness, courage, heroism, the New Testament, Jesus, beauty, excellence, and transcendence.

Why so? Well, Strauss’s intellectual project, so far as I can tell, served two aims: firstly, to make the West amenable for the Jews—to interpret it so as not to contradict Jewish life in the diaspora; secondly, to prevent totalitarianism, since totalitarianism arises from the transcendent. As Irving Kristol explained: Jews have no transcendence without the Temple; hence life in the diaspora is a humdrum affair guided by the law and bourgeois concerns with “getting on”—the Jews oppose manly excellence and beauty, the aristoi; instead, they venerate lawfully-guided bourgeois life. Aristocracy is itself connected with Nature; as Strauss notes, biblical Hebrew had no word for Nature; it had to borrow the Greek “charakter”—hence the Jews are an unnatural people, without character; and hence the West has to be interpreted so as to be without beauty and excellence, without aristocracy, in order for them to thrive in it.

To return to the second point, Strauss agreed with Voegelin—with whom he was a regular correspondent—that the totalitarian movements were gnostic, in the broad sense of that term (not that they were actually founded by secret Cathars). He extended this idea as regards gnosis to include Christianity itself; the entire of Christianity is a form of gnosis, with, as Kristol noted, a worrying concern for the poor not present in Judaism. Hence the New Testament had to be amputated from our conceptualisation of the West—only the law could remain, the transcendence offered by Jesus had to be removed as well; it was dangerous gnosis.

Now the West is really about justice—about law, an area where Jews feel very comfortable; it is not about transcendence, excellence, beauty, or aristocracy—areas where the Jews are less at home. Ironically, given the current enmity between the two religions, this puts Strauss closer to Islam; both Islam and Judaism are more about the law than Christianity—and, indeed, a Jew may pray in a mosque but not in a church; at times Judaism and Islam have been bosom buddies, and they are more compatible than Judaism and Christianity.

So this idea that “the West” is about “Athens and Jerusalem” is another way to say the West is about justice, about law—in other words, the West is more like Islam than not. It amputates huge areas of the West, basically those in which the Jews would not feel at home: Christianity, an old foe—Kristol recounts how at his Jewish school he was taught to spit when he passed a church; beauty; aristocracy; Nature; excellence; and transcendence. Everything is reduced to the pursuit of the mighty dollar under law—or else it is anti-Western gnostic totalitarianism. Yet Odysseus and Jesus are the West: the West is Athens and Rome, not Athens and Jerusalem.


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