Leo Strauss, “Memorial Remarks for Jason Aronson”

Thanks to Tim Haglund (thag) for bringing this to my attention. Completely changed as of 9/29/2016. If you want a copy of the older remarks, I will send it to you.

Memorial Remarks for Jason Aronson (from Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity, ed. Kenneth Hart Green)
Leo Strauss

We are struck by the awesome, unfathomable experience of death, of the death of one near and dear to us. We are grieved particularly because our friend died so young – when he was about to come into his own, to enter on a career which would have made him esteemed beyond the circle of his friends here and elsewhere and his pupils in the Liberal Arts Program. It is not given to me to say words of comfort of my own. I can only try to say what, I believe, Jason Aronson had come to know. I saw him for the last time about three weeks ago in my office. He knew where he stood. He jokingly reminded me of an old joke: all men are mortal but some more than others. He decided bravely and wisely to continue his study of Shaftesbury. At his suggestion we agreed that we would read the Bible together, starting from the beginning.

Death is terrible, terrifying, but we cannot live as human beings if this terror grips us to the point of corroding our core. Jason Aronson had two experiences which protected him against this corrosive as well as its kin. The one is to come to grips with the corrosives, to face them, to think them through, to understand the ineluctable necessities, and to understand that without them no life, no human life, no good life, is possible. Slowly, step by step, but with ever greater sureness and awakeness did he begin to become a philosopher. I do not know whether he knew the word of a man of old: may my soul die the death of the philosophers, but young as he was he died that death.

The other experience which gave him strength and depth was his realizing ever more clearly and profoundly what it means to be a son of the Jewish people – of the ‘am ‘olam – to have one’s roots deep in the oldest past and to be committed to a future beyond all futures.

He did not permit his mind to stifle the voice of his heart nor his heart to give commands to this mind.

I apply to his life the daring, gay, and noble motto: courte et bonne – his life was short and good. We shall not forget him and for what he stood.

I address his wife, his mother, and brother, and his sister the traditional Jewish formula: “May God comfort you among the others who mourn for Zion and Jerusalem.”

Comment:

We are struck by the awesome, unfathomable experience of death, of the death of one near and dear to us. Death creates an “awesome, unfathomable experience” not for the dead, but rather the living. At the same time this experience is “awesome” and “unfathomable” for us, it does not come from a supernatural source, but from one undergoing the unimaginable, one “near and dear to us.”

That severe juxtaposition, whereby the unfathomable is approached through another, conceived in a way, is Strauss’ source of wonder. We are grieved particularly because our friend died so young – when he was about to come into his own, to enter on a career which would have made him esteemed beyond the circle of his friends here and elsewhere and his pupils in the Liberal Arts Program. “Our friend died so young,” “he was about to come into his own:” again, there’s the friend facing death, and then there’s our perception of what has happened. There’s death, and then there’s our ideas about life. For us, coming-into-being links with his entering “on a career which would have made him esteemed beyond the circle of his friends here and elsewhere and his pupils in the Liberal Arts Program.” Does our notion of life have anything to do with the reality of death? What would a life that took death seriously as its opposite look like? Is that even the right question?

To illustrate the problem more fully, consider an anecdote Benardete tells about the writer Aelian. Aelian told of a painter, Pauson, who was commissioned to paint a horse tumbling in the dirt, having stumbled in a race. Pauson instead painted the horse running vigorously in the prime of life. When his patron objected, Pauson told him to turn the painting upside down. Aelian reports that there was much chatter that this resembled the speeches of Socrates. What I understand of this anecdote nowadays, an anecdote Benardete uses to speak of esoteric writing: the real theme of political philosophy is how one understands death and life and all our valuations therein (i.e. success and failure). If one says that the relation of death and life is simply what the logos indicates, death as simply the cessation of living being, one is entirely truthful. The outstanding question is why that answer contains absolutely no satisfaction, no other answers we could use. Why does it seem logos demands a mythos?

One might ask what any of this has to do with Mr. Aronson. Everything, of course: in the face of death, he believed there were questions worth asking, thoughts worth gleaning. His career did not just involve becoming esteemed by friends, colleagues, and pupils. There was the matter of achieving wisdom. Strauss tells us that Aronson “knew where he stood:”

It is not given to me to say words of comfort of my own. I can only try to say what, I believe, Jason Aronson had come to know. I saw him for the last time about three weeks ago in my office. He knew where he stood. He jokingly reminded me of an old joke: all men are mortal but some more than others. He decided bravely and wisely to continue his study of Shaftesbury. At his suggestion we agreed that we would read the Bible together, starting from the beginning.

“It is not given to me to say words of comfort of my own. I can only try to say what, I believe, Jason Aronson had come to know.” As we have said before, there’s death, and then there’s our ideas about life: we often conflate these two. Not unrelated is the starkness of the logos, that death is perishing, ceasing to be. These problems do not float in a space of abstract considerations. Rather, they meet in an individual: they point to the necessity of knowing through experience. The Greek expression for this, pathei mathos, learning by experience, was the heart of tragedy. The popular conception is that if one truly knows, one need not suffer.

I don’t think Strauss would agree with that conception. Aronson, in the face of death, “knew where he stood.” Echoing no less than Socrates himself, “He jokingly reminded me of an old joke: all men are mortal but some more than others.” Mortality is beyond a strictly logical accounting, not only affecting people differently, but meaning different things to them. Aronson “bravely and wisely” wanted to continue studying Shaftesbury: Strauss considers it courageous and wise to never stop learning from others; Wikipedia notes that Shaftesbury thought fanaticism could be defeated by “good humour,” and was thought very “amiable.” Aronson himself also wanted to study the Bible, from the beginning. The will to knowledge seems to entail consciousness of suffering; the pain of ignorance is a very real pain.

Yet that is not terribly visible to others. Socrates can be thought happy, even cheerful, facing his death: Xenophon and Plato almost entirely paint him this way. The problem of trying to understand death and life, the problem of trying to understand what we value, does not translate into an obvious character. It is not clear that someone who works for self-knowledge is courageous or wise. Strauss, then, must show how Aronson demonstrated a certain character, even after he has described him as brave, wise, and most knowledgeable about what he himself faced. Death is terrible, terrifying, but we cannot live as human beings if this terror grips us to the point of corroding our core. This paragraph is not necessary for Aronson himself: he understood this all too well. The question is what those of us gripped by fear more than curiosity should do. First, Strauss starts by illuminating Aronson’s intellectual development:

Jason Aronson had two experiences which protected him against this corrosive as well as its kin. The one is to come to grips with the corrosives, to face them, to think them through, to understand the ineluctable necessities, and to understand that without them no life, no human life, no good life, is possible. Slowly, step by step, but with ever greater sureness and awakeness did he begin to become a philosopher. I do not know whether he knew the word of a man of old: may my soul die the death of the philosophers, but young as he was he died that death.

Aronson had two experiences which prevented him from being completely gripped by terror or any other similar problem. Death itself is impossible to think about, but one can think about what fear death itself inspires and confront those fears, those “corrosives.” Facing them, thinking them through, one does not come to easy realizations. Each fear, each corrosive, stems from the “ineluctable necessities,” the things we cannot possibly understand and yet require. To take the smallest example: let’s say you’re worried about being eternally tortured because of some injustice you’ve committed. You can feel in your bones you’ve wronged someone. But this injustice is not listed anywhere: in fact, the only person who knows you’ve done wrong is you. What does the desire to do no harm, in the face of being a creature who only does harm, mean? Human life doesn’t merely entail imperfection; it depends on the awfulness of being thrust into a world that is impossible to understand and perhaps the most savage of places even without humanity to blame. To love wisdom is to see the necessities which accompany every good, to see the evils we must deal with. “Good” and “evil,” strictly speaking, do not apply here: the “sureness” and “awakeness” that emerge from loving wisdom are about human possibilities. To be sure, while this is beyond conventional morality, it is anything but immoral. Socrates was as good as his word when he died; the relativity of the good comes from one’s relentless pursuit of it; “do no harm” is the philosopher’s justice, and the philosopher’s burden alone.

That is one way in which Aronson was protected from the corrosive terror of death. The other:

The other experience which gave him strength and depth was his realizing ever more clearly and profoundly what it means to be a son of the Jewish people – of the ‘am ‘olam – to have one’s roots deep in the oldest past and to be committed to a future beyond all futures.

Aronson worked to realize his heritage of being part of the “eternal people,” the ‘am ‘olam, “ever more clearly and profoundly.” Strauss situates love of wisdom as the highest concern of the present: it’s how one confronts no less than death at any given moment. But people are not just individuals; they’re part of a community, and as part of a community, they have a shared past and a “future beyond all futures.” Immortality can be conferred through the “eternal people,” as they will always remember.

Notably, the more I think of Socrates’ daimonion, the more necessary it seems to me. I will not defend the absurd notion that Socrates was pious. Rather, it is all too easy to say Socrates called his practical, moral reasoning a “divine voice,” emphasizing that it did function like a prophetic voice, skirting a potential accusation of atheism. Something is missing from this picture. I surmise that Strauss is correct, that Socrates’ daimonion is the other side of his eros. Socrates has an enormous eros, but when he achieves wisdom, wisdom is nothing less than moderation, being immediately practiced. The eros, like the daimonion, is both a part of Socrates and not a part of him. His desire is for the beautiful, who are beyond him; the effectiveness of reasoning for oneself, also, can be beyond him. Only god can know if an action will achieve what it is meant to achieve.

The daimonion is Socrates’ possession, but not solely a part of Socrates. It sounds a lot like the world he is trying to understand and interact with. It sounds a lot like his belief in the world around him, one in contradistinction to what Xenophon called pre-Socratic “madness.” Debates about whether all things are limited or unlimited, or whether the primary element is wind or fire, or paradoxes where reason shows that Achilles cannot beat a tortoise in a race don’t just point to a conflation between mythos and logos, cult and science. They point to a fundamentally solipsistic reasoning, where the philosopher is never part of the city, where philosophy fails to inform itself of how humans live.

Aronson understood all too well what Jerusalem meant: He did not permit his mind to stifle the voice of his heart nor his heart to give commands to this mind.

A balance must be struck in one’s life in order to know. It is a strange thing, leading to an even stranger conclusion. Self-knowledge is not knowledge in the strict sense of being established by scientific rigor, but a species of belief. The funny thing about it is that it is prerequisite for knowledge, and entails an essentially private claim on the truth which is difficult to not term knowledge. It entails a split self and recognition of that split. Those of us who mourn can only imagine such a division; we make do with the crude categories we use for societal phenomena. Strauss’ last words, which praise his daring and nobility, mark Aronson a philosopher: he was unforgettable, he stood for an introspection that informed him fully. But he also understood himself as one of the eternal people, and would understand himself and his people better with time. Only God, appropriately, can deliver the comfort needed, even as we remember:

I apply to his life the daring, gay, and noble motto: courte et bonne – his life was short and good. We shall not forget him and for what he stood.

I address his wife, his mother, and brother, and his sister the traditional Jewish formula: “May God comfort you among the others who mourn for Zion and Jerusalem.”

3 Comments

  1. Some thoughts:

    “He did not permit his mind to stifle the voice of his heart” seems to go with “The other experience…was his realizing..what it means to be a son of the Jewish people”

    Likewise, “nor his heart to give commands to this mind” ties to “with ever greater sureness and awakeness did he begin to become a philosopher.”

    Thinking this through a bit more, I have some question about what role the mind and heart are playing – and some other necessary but absent part.

    “He did not permit his mind to stifle the voice of his heart”: What part of “him” is not permitting this? Is the mind ‘self-regulating,’ so to speak? Is the heart preventing its own stifling? Or is there some third part? I dunno.

  2. You brought up many thought provoking statements. While death does tend to make one measure themselves and how they are living or how they have lived. It is important to live in the now and to try to learn from each and every experience.

  3. As i read through this, Death is an Eye opener for those who surrounds the dead.Those who have done Great things would leave imprints and can be cherished. Ironically, when they are still alive, have they known how important they are and how they touched other lives?…

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