Leo Strauss, “Memorial Remarks for Jason Aronson”

Thanks to Tim Haglund (thag) for bringing this to my attention.

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:

1. Death seems an “awesome, unfathomable experience” when it hits those close to us. We do not actually experience death; we may learn something of or through it through love. We realize what we desired in confrontation with Nothing. Still, ‘Am ‘olam according to Kenneth Green can be translated “the eternal people.” Death may be unfathomable, but awe-inspiring? “The eternal people” may be an object worthy of wonder themselves. I do not want to push these considerations too far, as they tend to create too many ironies. Still, “the eternal people” depend on a religion that does treat death as “awesome” and “unfathomable.” God brought forth Creation out of Nothing. But Plato tells us of a Socrates made forever young and beautiful in his Letters. Socrates described philosophy as the practice of dying and being dead. What I will say is that for the philosopher, it seems humanity is as eternal a problem as the cosmos, even if one knows humanity is simply a drop in the ocean of time.

So what do we make of the probable “esteem” of Mr. Aronson? “Come into his own” is coming-into-being. It contrasts with the “eternal people” and the Nothing that is “awesome, unfathomable.” “Esteem” is a human emergence, a human regard. That he would have had friends here and there as well as pupils – likenesses of himself? – suggests the nobility of possibility. Mr. Aronson may be noble, but he is not necessarily a philosopher. Joe Connole and I have been working through Xenophon’s Symposium and talking about how the symmetry Socrates insists comes about through Socratic dancing is probably only rhetorical. Philosophy creates a union of knowledge and self-knowledge that is in some way monstrous. Xenophon himself likens Socrates to a satyr. If the philosophic life is the best life, in some sense it sees humanity from beyond (or beneath) human perspective. It can establish nobility through that perspective, perhaps simply by being articulate, but that threatens to reduce human life to mere conventionality.

But even if we create artificial standards from which to bestow honor, those standards may reflect or point at something natural. The “esteem” can’t merely be dismissed, despite the ludicrous suggestion that those truly interested in the Liberal Arts do so for pupils, friends, or careers. Again, an irony: this pushes Strauss, who sets himself up here as one who can judge what a philosopher might be, to say he cannot say “words of comfort of my own.” I do not think this is happening merely because it is probable Aronson would have been esteemed. Rather, the “esteem” raises the question of who the pupil was truly. A philosopher, first and foremost, asks questions.

2. Strauss can “only try to say” what he “believe[d]” Aronson “had come to know.” This statement is so dense that it requires the rest of the remarks to be read into it. The attempted articulation of one’s own opinion – to know how one stands with knowledge – requires an accounting of how knowledge and experience relate. Many ignore the topic of self-knowledge, simply replacing questioning with crude skepticism. I don’t know that self-knowledge exists, myself. I do think the possibility of self-knowledge is what makes humanity a perpetual problem despite itself.

So let us get a hint of that accounting as far as Strauss’ remarks will allow. “He knew where he stood” – Aronson has something close to self-knowledge. Socratic self-knowledge: Socrates knows exactly when he is to die (cf. Crito). The redundancy of “jokingly” and “joke” points to these being the most serious of topics. Not that Aronson is terribly bothered with death; the end of the remarks demonstrates that seriousness is a matter of “to whom” and “for whom.” He wanted to “bravely and wisely” continue his study of Shaftesbury. (Strauss himself did not suggest he read the Bible.) Aronson seems concerned with how we think. In a way, how “we think” traces back to an “I;” political phenomena are traceable, in some strange way, to self-knowledge. This linkage is almost useless for practical purposes and highly suspect theoretically. Consider the “big letters” vs. “small letters” metaphor of the Republic, that if one looks at the city carefully, one sees the written law as an indication of the soul. That would mean if the Torah is written on one’s heart, it should be visible in the larger community. The Bible and Augustine and a million others are rightly cynical about the whole of a civilization reflecting the truth of an individual. Socrates joins that skepticism and is also not clear whether a thorough examination of one soul can tell us anything about politics, about humanity. And yet, something about this link between “we” and “I” is indispensable. Perhaps the link is fear of death, which seems the most natural thing. We all share it; can we conquer it together? Can we look to one who has conquered it?

Strauss takes a seemingly existential approach to describing the first of two experiences that kept the terror of death at bay. Such terror cannot be allowed to grip us “to the point of corroding our core.” This corrosive as well as others must be gripped; one can see the word repeat, and this reader does wonder if man has to remain a fearful being in some fundamental sense:

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.

The “corrosives” are to be gripped, I assume, the following way: they are faced, thought through, and then finally recognized as “ineluctable necessities.” They are a darkness – an ignorance and something unhealthy (evil?) – that makes us who we are. To understand why man is not perfectible in the sense of how an art may be, note the following list. “Life” is not “human life;” both are distinguishable from what is “good.” Glaucon notes rightly in the Republic that virtue requires vice. The possibility of being better requires the possibility of being worse. We know the law of God because we know what it is designed to prevent. “Sureness” and “awakeness” may be said to characterize someone climbing out of the cave toward the light. I do not know that both such attributes necessarily constitute a philosopher, a lover of wisdom, although I will say it is the awareness and determination regarding serious questions that matters more than actually having knowledge. Too many people – especially scholars themselves – confuse being a scholar with being a philosopher. If Aronson was a philosopher, it is conceivable he was as fearless in the face of death as Socrates was.

3. In death Aronson was most certainly a philosopher, but not because of any sort of terribly dark Socratic joke. The soul searching for self-knowledge is the key. But what about the second experience that kept his core from corroding?

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.

Anastaplo thinks this is Strauss implying that Judaism helped shape his own intellectual inquiry. It is true “oldest past” could mean “nature.” “Future beyond all futures” is something like “beyond good and evil” (for the record: love is beyond good and evil). I think we need to remember bravery and wisdom is linked to reading Shaftesbury more than the Bible. It is true Shaftesbury was considered an opponent of Hobbes and might have been more pious than some thought. “Realizing ever more clearly and profoundly” is not revelation, though. Again, that’s the drive to something more like self-knowledge.

I’m not saying Strauss is attacking Judaism or faith. The issue here is “Why faith? What is prior to faith?” That places the question of human nature front and center. Plenty of people try to romanticize the strict legalism of certain types of faith and make it a substitute for asking difficult questions. They get mystical and delusional and write some really bad tirades. They stop believing that humanity goes on, that a philosopher’s job is not to solve all problems, if any.

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

The mind is firmly in control no matter what, but this is not tyrannical rule. This is the attempt to make sense of two conflicting things – life and one’s own life. The final passages return to religion a peculiar way:

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.”

“His life” was “gay:” he was happy. Daring and nobility produced a good despite a short lifespan. But what did he stand for? The search for truth may not yield truth or wisdom. To make that somewhat explicable, there is “the traditional Jewish formula,” where others who are searching are invoked. Again, none of this is to say Strauss is cynical about religion. He has some reservations, certainly, but I know we can distinguish between believers using the criteria given. There are some for whom it is a struggle to adhere to the Law or to treat others like human beings. And then there are others who are just on a higher level, who aren’t always appreciated by the others in their church, synagogue, mosque, temple, etc.

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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