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Postby admin » Thu Jul 16, 2015 6:49 am


by Irene Abigail Piccinini



In an often quoted passage, Strauss once asserted: "I am in no way a Cohenian!"[1]. Notwithstanding this disclaimer, there are distinct echoes and correspondences between Strauss's work and Cohen's. Without ever becoming a "Cohenian" in a scholastic sense, Strauss nevertheless paid close attention to questions raised by Cohen and engaged with them repeatedly. In the following, I will focus on Strauss's critique of Cohen's reading of Baruch Spinoza's Theological-Political Treatise (henceforth: TPT). I will show that Strauss's own reading of Spinoza is shaped by questions he derived from engaging with Cohen.

First, I will explain why Spinoza has been described as Hermann Cohen's "arch-enemy". The paper will then focus on Strauss's criticism of Cohen's interpretation of Spinoza, as expressed in Strauss's first philosophical essay, "Cohen's Analysis of Spinoza's Bible Science". Finally, I will track Cohen's influence on the early Strauss through "The Testament of Spinoza" (1932). I will argue that this article contains a quasi-Cohenian interpretation of Baruch Spinoza. "Cohenian", because (i) Strauss's interpretation answers questions raised by Cohen in his reading of Spinoza, and (ii) Strauss's answers are closer to Cohen's interpretive stance than one might think; "quasi", because Strauss's answers to Cohen's questions are very different from Cohen's own answers.


That Baruch Spinoza "was the arch-enemy to Hermann Cohen" is a pregnant statement made by Steven Schwarzschild[2]. In this statement, Schwarzschild brilliantly captures a number of verdicts by Cohen concerning Spinoza. Cohen considered Spinoza a renegade to his people, an apostate full of hatred for the Jews, a "falsifier and slanderer of Judaism"[3], someone guilty of "a humanly incomprehensible betrayal"[4]. Franz Nauen has remarked that Cohen found Spinoza "essentially disloyal"[5]; in Cohen's words, Spinoza lacked the ethical virtue of fidelity (Treue)[6]. I will therefore use Cohen's concept of fidelity as a key to explain his utter aversion to Spinoza[7].

The virtue of fidelity is not only an important component of Cohen's theoretical system in general but more importantly it is also one of Cohen's most effective and forceful intellectual tools to strengthen Jewish identity and to defend Judaism against anti-Jewish attacks. As many scholars have pointed out, Cohen was deeply engaged in the fight against anti-Jewish feelings of all kinds, ranging from ancient religious prejudices to more recent racist ideologies[8]. Parallel to his fight against anti-Jewish sentiments, Cohen was increasingly committed to Jewish education and scholarship and, in his writings, he emphasized the universal values contained in Judaism and its profound contributions to Western culture. In this context, fidelity toward one's family, friends, religious community, and nationality is used by Cohen to explain why it is morally indispensable to maintain a Jewish identity in spite of the difficulties of living in a non- Jewish society.

According to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination,

the term "racial discrimination" shall mean any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.'

This definition does not make any difference between prosecutions based on ethnicity and race, in part because the distinction between the ethnicity and race remains debatable among anthropologists. According to British law, racial group means "any group of people who are defined by reference to their race, colour, nationality (including citizenship) or ethnic or national origin".

-- Racism, by Wikipedia

Cohen discusses the virtue of fidelity in two prominent places, namely in Ethik des reinen Willens (Ethics of Pure Will, 1904, second edition 1907), ch. 14, and in Religion der Vernunft aus den Quellen des Judentums (Religion of Reason From the Sources of Judaism, 1919, second edition 1928), ch. 21. As an ethical virtue, Cohen describes fidelity as a persistency of the will: it is directed toward the Other, but its main goal is the unity of the Self[9]. Fidelity is what allows human beings to go beyond the fickleness of the heart and therefore what gives steadiness (Stetigkeit) to a relationship, be it with a single person (friendship, love), with a community (national, religious), or with G-d. According to Cohen, not relationships themselves but their persistency, the steadiness of maintaining them, has "a crucial ethical value" [10], because it leads to perfecting what Cohen calls "ethical self-consciousness."

Cohen uses the virtue of fidelity to explain why a person should preserve a link to her people and religious community in the face of any personal choice. In particular, in his essay "Der Religionswechsel in der neuen Ära des Antisemitismus"[11], Cohen establishes a connection between fidelity to the Jewish community and the fight against anti- Semitism. Cohen condemns those who choose conversion to Christianity on grounds of social expediency, such as to avoid the growing effects of anti-Jewish attacks or simply to improve their social condition or gain a better job. Cohen agrees that being part of the Jewish community is difficult because of social prejudice and anti-Jewish feelings. Nevertheless, according to him, leaving the community to avoid persecution leads the persecutor to strengthen her prejudice and negative attitude towards the community. Therefore Cohen considers religious conversion not only a private, personal act, but also a public one, a betrayal of one's own people, which affects the whole community. The lack of fidelity towards one's own people is therefore a lack of faithfulness towards family and friends, which are part of the community. But, as we mentioned, the main goal of fidelity is the unity of the self, so a lack of fidelity is ultimately a lack of fidelity toward oneself, a rejection of the ethical improvement of one's own ethical self-consciousness[12]. Fidelity guarantees that one will maintain a continuity with her own history and identity, in spite of any change and development which may occur in one's life[13]. Thus, Cohen defines remembering as the "psychological function of faithfulness"[14]: in the end, lack of fidelity leads to forgetting who one is and who one should become (through one's ethical improvement).

All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.

I do not mean by this declaration to condemn those who believe otherwise; they have the same right to their belief as I have to mine. But it is necessary to the happiness of man, that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.

It is impossible to calculate the moral mischief, if I may so express it, that mental lying has produced in society. When a man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his mind, as to subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believe, he has prepared himself for the commission of every other crime. He takes up the trade of a priest for the sake of gain, and in order to qualify himself for that trade, he begins with a perjury. Can we conceive any thing more destructive to morality than this?

-- The Age of Reason, by Thomas Paine

In light of Cohen's analysis of the virtue of fidelity, it seems clear why Cohen couldn't accept Spinoza's behaviour towards the Jewish community. As a Jew, Cohen was not only deeply committed to preserving and strengthening the Jewish identity, but he also considered this duty, on a more theoretical level, as a fundamental part of the improvement of his ethical self-consciousness. As a part of his duty, Cohen included the task of purifying the Jewish religion from its mythological elements, showing that the Jewish religion is a Religion of Reason, a religion whose inner core is morality and whose inner task is the moral progress of humanity towards the messianic ideal of a unified humanity. Cohen considered Spinoza as an enemy not only to the Jewish people but also to the project of ethical idealism: instead of developing the universalistic elements contained in the Jewish tradition, Spinoza discredited it as a political legislation, thus offering arguments to defamers and detractors of the Jewish belief. Spinoza especially lacked fidelity because he knew Judaism from the inside, had a good Jewish education, and nevertheless -- Cohen maintains -- gave a false and misleading image of the Jewish tradition. According to Cohen, Spinoza did all of this intentionally: his lack of fidelity was deliberate[15]. Spinoza's attitude towards Judaism had, in Cohen's opinion, fatal consequences not only because it lent credence to anti-Jewish arguments, but most of all because it led many thinkers, including Kant, to a complete misunderstanding of the Jewish religion. Instead of fighting anti-Jewish prejudices, Spinoza contributed to them: "The key statements in which Spinoza discharged his vindictive hatred of the Jews can still be found today almost literally in the daily newspapers of certain political tendencies"[16]. For this reason it seems quite clear why Cohen's critique of Spinoza manifested itself as "a holy war against an enemy to whom no quarter can be given, a battle not only between truth and falsehood but between good and evil"[17].


Leo Strauss began his philosophical career with a critical essay on Hermann Cohen's interpretation of Spinoza's Theological-Political Treatise ("Cohen's Analysis of Spinoza's Bible Science")[18]. The article appeared in the May/June 1924 issue of the Jewish periodical Der Jude, edited by Martin Buber, and attracted the attention of Julius Guttmann, the director of the Academy for the Science of Judaism (Akademie für die Wissenschaft des Judentums). On Guttmann's initiative, the Academy offered Strauss a research fellowship, which he accepted, and he was subsequently employed by the Academy to finish his monograph on Spinoza[19] and to work on the Mendelssohn Jubiläumsausgabe.[20]


Martin Buber (Hebrew: מרטין בובר‎; February 8, 1878 – June 13, 1965) was an Austrian-born Jewish philosopher best known for his philosophy of dialogue, a form of religious existentialism centered on the distinction between the I-Thou relationship and the I-It relationship.

Born in Vienna, Buber came from a family of observant Jews, but broke with Jewish custom to pursue secular studies in philosophy. In 1902, Buber became the editor of the weekly Die Welt, the central organ of the Zionist movement, although he later withdrew from organizational work in Zionism. In 1923 Buber wrote his famous essay on existence, Ich und Du (later translated into English as I and Thou), and in 1925 he began translating the Hebrew Bible into the German language.

In 1930 Buber became an honorary professor at the University of Frankfurt am Main, and resigned in protest from his professorship immediately after Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. He then founded the Central Office for Jewish Adult Education, which became an increasingly important body as the German government forbade Jews to attend public education. In 1938, Buber left Germany and settled in Jerusalem, in the British Mandate for Palestine, receiving a professorship at Hebrew University and lecturing in anthropology and introductory sociology.

Buber's wife Paula died in 1958, and he died at his home in the Talbiyeh neighborhood of Jerusalem on June 13, 1965.

-- "Martin Buber," by Wikipedia

A study of Strauss's early writings on Spinoza vis à vis Strauss's relationship with Cohen is interesting in light of his lifelong engagement with Cohen. Strauss honoured Cohen by writing an introduction to the English edition of Cohen's Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism. If we consider that the same article was also published at the end of Strauss's last work, the posthumously published Studies in Platonic Philosophy, it represents in some sense a kind of conclusion to Strauss's own work. As remarked by many scholars, Cohen remained for Strauss a permanent and stimulating point of reference from the very beginning to the very end of his philosophical activity[21]. Strauss greatly honored the memory of Cohen but he also displayed complete intellectual independence in criticizing Cohen's views. The analysis of Strauss's early writings on Spinoza, especially of "Cohen's Analysis of Spinoza's Bible Science" and of "The Testament of Spinoza", will show that Strauss took seriously the questions raised by Cohen in his critique of Spinoza and that he gave answers to these questions that, while not strictly speaking Cohenian, seem inspired by Cohen's way of thinking and that may therefore constitute a Cohenian legacy.

Strauss explained his reasons for engaging with Hermann Cohen's interpretation of Spinoza in his Preface to the English edition (1965) of his monograph on Spinoza's Critique of Religion. However, a connection between Cohen's legacy and Strauss's research project on Spinoza's Bible Science was openly drawn by Strauss many years before this well-known Preface. Already in 1926, Strauss wrote as follows: "I owe the idea for my work to the critical study of Hermann Cohen's article, 'Spinoza über Staat und Religion, Judentum und Christentum' (…) which, in terms of the radicalism of its questioning and the forcefulness with which he calls Spinoza to account, is simply paradigmatic and which, in this very respect, is peerless in the recent literature on Spinoza"[22]. Similarly, Franz Rosenzweig remarked that Strauss was the only one in his generation who gave an appropriate response to Cohen's criticism of Spinoza: "Cohen took Spinoza seriously. For this reason, his Spinoza has not been taken seriously. Except for Leo Strauss's short and important essay 'On the Bible Science of Spinoza and His Precursors', (…) I am not aware of any other work that grappled seriously with Cohen's problem"[23]. Nevertheless, Strauss pointed out from the very beginning of his investigation that he couldn't but find a discrepancy between Cohen's own philosophical project, which he saw as inscribed in the tradition of the Enlightenment, and Cohen's opposition to Spinoza: "To be sure, while few of Cohen's contemporaries were as inspired as he was by the spirit of the great age of the Enlightenment, to which he zealously testified in many important passages of his writings, when it comes to his criticism of Spinoza, apparently diverted by his insight into the deeper opposition, he failed to recognize Spinoza's true objective (which is essentially identical with that of the Enlightenment) as well as the immediate target of his attack.

…peoples’ free judgments are very diverse and everyone thinks they know everything themselves, and it can never happen that everyone will think exactly alike and speak with one voice. It would have been impossible therefore for people to live in peace, unless each one gave up his right to act according to his own decision alone. Each one therefore surrendered his right to act according to his own resolution, but not his right to think and judge for himself. Thus no one can act against the sovereign’s decisions without prejudicing his authority, but they can think and judge and speak without restriction, provided they merely speak or teach by way of reason alone.[xiv]

-- Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, ch. 20, paragraphs 6 and 7.

The most plausible plea, which hath ever been offered in favor of hereditary succession, is, that it preserves a nation from civil wars; and were this true, it would be weighty; whereas, it is the most barefaced falsity ever imposed upon mankind. The whole history of England disowns the fact. Thirty kings and two minors have reigned in that distracted kingdom since the conquest, in which time there have been (including the Revolution) no less than eight civil wars and nineteen rebellions. Wherefore instead of making for peace, it makes against it, and destroys the very foundation it seems to stand on....

Where there are no distinctions there can be no superiority, perfect equality affords no temptation. The republics of Europe are all (and we may say always) in peace. Holland and Switzerland are without wars, foreign or domestic; monarchical governments, it is true, are never long at rest: the crown itself is a temptation to enterprising ruffians at home; and that degree of pride and insolence ever attendant on regal authority swells into a rupture with foreign powers, in instances where a republican government, by being formed on more natural principles, would negotiate the mistake.

-- Common Sense, by Thomas Paine

But unhappily there is no security in the state of the public mind, that the suspension of worse forms of legal persecution, which has lasted for about the space of a generation, will continue. In this age the quiet surface of routine is as often ruffled by attempts to resuscitate past evils, as to introduce new benefits. What is boasted of at the present time as the revival of religion, is always, in narrow and uncultivated minds, at least as much the revival of bigotry; and where there is the strongest permanent leaven of intolerance in the feelings of a people, which at all times abides in the middle classes of this country, it needs but little to provoke them into actively persecuting those whom they have never ceased to think proper objects of persecution. For it is this -- it is the opinions men entertain, and the feelings they cherish, respecting those who disown the beliefs they deem important, which makes this country not a place of mental freedom. For a long time past, the chief mischief of the legal penalties is that they strengthen the social stigma. It is that stigma which is really effective, and so effective is it, that the profession of opinions which are under the ban of society is much less common in England, than is, in many other countries, the avowal of those which incur risk of judicial punishment. In respect to all persons but those whose pecuniary circumstances make them independent of the good will of other people, opinion, on this subject, is as efficacious as law; men might as well be imprisoned, as excluded from the means of earning their bread. Those whose bread is already secured, and who desire no favors from men in power, or from bodies of men, or from the public, have nothing to fear from the open avowal of any opinions, but to be ill-thought of and ill-spoken of, and this it ought not to require a very heroic mould to enable them to bear. There is no room for any appeal ad misericordiam in behalf of such persons. But though we do not now inflict so much evil on those who think differently from us, as it was formerly our custom to do, it may be that we do ourselves as much evil as ever by our treatment of them. Socrates was put to death, but the Socratic philosophy rose like the sun in heaven, and spread its illumination over the whole intellectual firmament. Christians were cast to the lions, but the Christian Church grew up a stately and spreading tree, overtopping the older and less vigorous growths, and stifling them by its shade. Our merely social intolerance, kills no one, roots out no opinions, but induces men to disguise them, or to abstain from any active effort for their diffusion. With us, heretical opinions do not perceptibly gain or even lose, ground in each decade or generation; they never blaze out far and wide, but continue to smoulder in the narrow circles of thinking and studious persons among whom they originate, without ever lighting up the general affairs of mankind with either a true or a deceptive light. And thus is kept up a state of things very satisfactory to some minds, because, without the unpleasant process of fining or imprisoning anybody, it maintains all prevailing opinions outwardly undisturbed, while it does not absolutely interdict the exercise of reason by dissentients afflicted with the malady of thought. A convenient plan for having peace in the intellectual world, and keeping all things going on therein very much as they do already. But the price paid for this sort of intellectual pacification, is the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind. A state of things in which a large portion of the most active and inquiring intellects find it advisable to keep the genuine principles and grounds of their convictions within their own breasts, and attempt, in what they address to the public, to fit as much as they can of their own conclusions to premises which they have internally renounced, cannot send forth the open, fearless characters, and logical, consistent intellects who once adorned the thinking world. The sort of men who can be looked for under it, are either mere conformers to commonplace, or time-servers for truth whose arguments on all great subjects are meant for their hearers, and are not those which have convinced themselves. Those who avoid this alternative, do so by narrowing their thoughts and interests to things which can be spoken of without venturing within the region of principles, that is, to small practical matters, which would come right of themselves, if but the minds of mankind were strengthened and enlarged, and which will never be made effectually right until then; while that which would strengthen and enlarge men's minds, free and daring speculation on the highest subjects, is abandoned.

Those in whose eyes this reticence on the part of heretics is no evil, should consider in the first place, that in consequence of it there is never any fair and thorough discussion of heretical opinions; and that such of them as could not stand such a discussion, though they may be prevented from spreading, do not disappear. But it is not the minds of heretics that are deteriorated most, by the ban placed on all inquiry which does not end in the orthodox conclusions. The greatest harm done is to those who are not heretics, and whose whole mental development is cramped, and their reason cowed, by the fear of heresy. Who can compute what the world loses in the multitude of promising intellects combined with timid characters, who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought, lest it should land them in something which would admit of being considered irreligious or immoral? Among them we may occasionally see some man of deep conscientiousness, and subtile and refined understanding, who spends a life in sophisticating with an intellect which he cannot silence, and exhausts the resources of ingenuity in attempting to reconcile the promptings of his conscience and reason with orthodoxy, which yet he does not, perhaps, to the end succeed in doing. No one can be a great thinker who does not recognize, that as a thinker it is his first duty to follow his intellect to whatever conclusions it may lead. Truth gains more even by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think. Not that it is solely, or chiefly, to form great thinkers, that freedom of thinking is required. On the contrary, it is as much, and even more indispensable, to enable average human beings to attain the mental stature which they are capable of. There have been, and may again be, great individual thinkers, in a general atmosphere of mental slavery. But there never has been, nor ever will be, in that atmosphere, an intellectually active people. Where any people has made a temporary approach to such a character, it has been because the dread of heterodox speculation was for a time suspended. Where there is a tacit convention that principles are not to be disputed; where the discussion of the greatest questions which can occupy humanity is considered to be closed, we cannot hope to find that generally high scale of mental activity which has made some periods of history so remarkable. Never when controversy avoided the subjects which are large and important enough to kindle enthusiasm, was the mind of a people stirred up from its foundations, and the impulse given which raised even persons of the most ordinary intellect to something of the dignity of thinking beings. Of such we have had an example in the condition of Europe during the times immediately following the Reformation; another, though limited to the Continent and to a more cultivated class, in the speculative movement of the latter half of the eighteenth century; and a third, of still briefer duration, in the intellectual fermentation of Germany during the Goethian and Fichtean period. These periods differed widely in the particular opinions which they developed; but were alike in this, that during all three the yoke of authority was broken. In each, an old mental despotism had been thrown off, and no new one had yet taken its place. The impulse given at these three periods has made Europe what it now is. Every single improvement which has taken place either in the human mind or in institutions, may be traced distinctly to one or other of them. Appearances have for some time indicated that all three impulses are well-nigh spent; and we can expect no fresh start, until we again assert our mental freedom.

-- On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill

Spinoza did not turn against the 'monotheism of Judaism' or against the 'social ethics of the prophets' but rather against revealed religion in all its forms. In view of Cohen's radicalization of the question, one must again undertake an analysis of the Theological-Political Treatise (TPT) as a radical critique of revealed religion"[24]. The analysis of the TPT as a radical critique of revealed religion was undertaken by Strauss in his first book Spinoza's Critique of Religion, but the first steps of this investigation are already clearly expressed in his earlier essay, "Cohen's Analysis of Spinoza's Bible Science". Using a historical-critical approach, Strauss wanted to show that many (if not all) of Cohen's criticisms were due to a mistaken perspective, and therefore unmotivated.


In "Cohen's Analysis of Spinoza's Bible Science" Strauss argues that Cohen's objections to Spinoza are unjustified: considering the historical and intellectual context in which Spinoza lived and wrote, what Cohen judged to be incomprehensible was perfectly comprehensible. For example, some elements criticized by Cohen, such as the connection between political theory and critique of the Bible, the interpretation of the Bible based on political considerations, and the identification of religion and Scriptures belonged with 17th century philosophical culture in general, and not with Spinoza alone. As Strauss remarks, "Spinoza was compelled to engage in the critique of the Bible by legitimate motives, whether or not he was full of hatred toward Judaism"[25], because this attitude was a part of the struggle - which Spinoza shared with the intellectuals of his century - for the liberation of politics and science from the oppressive influence of ecclesiastical institutions.

For example, fish are determined by nature to swim and big fish to eat little ones, and therefore it is by sovereign natural right that fish have possession of the water and that big fish eat small fish. For it is certain that nature, considered wholly in itself, has a sovereign right to do everything that it can do, i.e., the right of nature extends as far as its power extends.

-- Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, ch. 16, paragraph 2.

As for Cohen's philosophically more complex objection that Spinoza's Ethics and the TPT contained contradictory philosophical assumptions, Strauss answers that "the moral principle of the Treatise does not contradict that of the Ethics. Spinoza's general way of proceeding in the Treatise can be justified also from a systematic perspective, because the fundamental necessity and the objective (…) legitimacy of the argumentatio ad hominem (…) follows from the principle of hierarchy that is fundamental to the Ethics"[26].

In any case, the most problematic element of Cohen's interpretation of Spinoza concerned, as we mentioned, Spinoza's attitude towards Judaism. Cohen maintained that the main purpose of Spinoza's critique of the Bible was to launch an attack on the Jewish religion and - even worse in Cohen's perspective - to show a greater reverence towards Christianity than towards Judaism. In this respect, Strauss remarks that "the essential conclusions of Spinoza's Bible science are sufficiently motivated by the actual nature (…) of the object of this science"[27], without any need to refer to Spinoza's Jewish connection, as Cohen does. It should not be surprising, according to Strauss, that Spinoza pointed out the political, nationalistic, particularistic, cultish and naïve-egotistical elements of the Old Testament, instead of what Cohen considered the most important elements for a fair evaluation of Judaism, namely the moral, rational, humanistic and universalistic aspects of the Jewish tradition. Strauss observes that Spinoza's critique of the Bible need not reflect Spinoza's attitude towards Judaism, because both the purpose and the result of the investigations in the TPT can be explained and understood without referring to Spinoza's own connection to the Jewish world. The TPT, writes Strauss, "is a Christian-European, not a Jewish, event"[28], so its purpose and method should be analyzed in the context of the antithesis between the traditional-ecclesiastical and the critical-scholarly interpretations of the Bible. What Cohen forgot, according to Strauss, is that in the 17th century the striving against ecclesiastical claims on science and the state was not yet resolved as it was in Cohen's time. As Strauss maintains, it would be impossible to understand and evaluate Spinoza's TPT without considering this fundamental struggle of European culture in the 17th and 18th century.

Strauss thus concludes his essay without discussing the question of Spinoza's attitude towards Judaism and the Jews. Nevertheless, he underlines that a further investigation was needed to clarify whether some (and, if so, which) Jewish impulses might still be alive in Spinoza's Bible science and how the interests of Judaism relate to Spinoza's Biblical scholarship. In this respect, Strauss points out the importance of Cohen's legacy for a further study of Spinoza's work: "Cohen is right when he establishes (…) the interest of Judaism as the highest authority for assessing this science (viz., Spinoza's Bible Science). (…) He is right when he seeks to measure Spinoza's thought about Judaism, and his conduct towards Judaism, by Jewish standards"[29]. According to Strauss he is wrong, however, "when he determines the interest of Judaism by the external consideration of the purposes of theologico-political apologetics, rather than determining it on the basis of the inner need of the spirit of our people [Volksgeist]"[30]. In any case, Strauss acknowledges "the exemplary seriousness of Hermann Cohen"[31], attested by the fact that his questioning was free from the romantic image of the "God-intoxicated man" (Novalis) that had become pervasive in German as well as in Jewish culture. In this respect, although not explicitly, Strauss displays a "Cohenian" perspective: he adopts Cohen's non- or anti-romantic stance toward Spinoza and his writings, and he focuses on the philosophical and political presuppositions of the Treatise.


Strauss subsequently proceeded to answer Cohen's question of how the interests of Judaism are affected by Spinoza's Bible science. Two years after the publication of Spinoza's Critique of Religion, where he had developed his thesis of the "Christian-European" character of the TPT in greater detail, Strauss wrote a short essay entitled "The Testament of Spinoza"[32], which I consider a quasi-Cohenian afterword to his book on Spinoza. "The Testament of Spinoza" focuses on Spinoza's attitude towards Judaism and provides an answer to Cohen's question about the relationship between the interests of Judaism and Spinoza's Biblical studies: it constitutes the further investigation whose task Strauss articulated at the conclusion of "Cohen's Analysis of Spinoza's Bible Science". Published in Bayerische Israelitische Gemeindezeitung, a Jewish periodical, "The Testament of Spinoza" is written for a Jewish public in the context of a Jewish culture, underscoring the importance of a "Jewish point of view" toward Spinoza. Furthermore, the essay begins and ends with a reference to Hermann Cohen: Cohen's question of whether Spinoza was responsible for a "humanly incomprehensible betrayal" frames Strauss's essay. Finally, although Strauss disagrees with Cohen on how this question should be answered, he nevertheless points to the relevance of Cohen's legacy for his own philosophical reasoning.

According to Strauss, Spinoza's philosophical work should not be considered as the result of his Jewish heritage. Although Spinoza was born and grew up within Amsterdam's Sephardic community, and although Spinoza's philosophical education began by reading the writings of medieval Jewish philosophers, Strauss maintains that he belongs to the European-Mediterranean tradition as a whole rather than to a parochially Jewish one:

"Good European" that he is, Spinoza takes from the Jewish tradition the common property of European ideas that it conveyed to him -- and nothing else. Thus we believe we have answered the question of whether the Jew as a Jew is entitled to venerate Spinoza. Spinoza belongs not to Judaism, but to the small band of superior minds whom Nietzsche called the "good Europeans." To this community belong all the philosophers of the seventeenth century, but Spinoza belongs to it in a special way. Spinoza did not remain a Jew, while Descartes, Hobbes, and Leibniz remained Christians. Thus it is not in accordance with Spinoza's wishes that he be inducted into the pantheon of the Jewish nation.[33]
Thus, according to Strauss, Jews should relinquish their claim on Spinoza, noticing that this wouldn't mean surrendering him to the enemies of the Jewish nation, but rather "leave him to that distant and strange community of 'neutrals' whom one can call, with considerable justice, the community of the 'good Europeans'"[34]. Strauss argues that one may or may not venerate Spinoza; nonetheless, one should respect his last will, "and his last will was neutrality toward the Jewish nation, based on his break with Judaism"[35].

The statement about Spinoza's neutrality toward Judaism is the result of Strauss's historical-critical analysis of the TPT, which he began with "Cohen's Analysis of Spinoza's Bible Science" and completed in his book on Spinoza's Critique of Religion. In the latter work, Strauss highlighted the distance between Spinoza and his original community as a peculiar and essential component of his philosophical work[36]. In this respect, Strauss argues that Cohen was wrong to maintain that Spinoza had a vengeful attitude towards Judaism because of the ban of the Amsterdam community, but at the same time Cohen was right that Spinoza had no legitimate place within the Amsterdam community, and therefore the Amsterdam community was justified in sanctioning Spinoza's distance through a public ban. As to Spinoza's neutrality, Strauss infers it from Spinoza's well known statement in the third chapter of the TPT that "(i)f the foundations of the Jewish religion have not rendered the minds of the Jews effeminate (…), then I would absolutely believe that someday, given the opportunity and human affairs being so changeable, they (the Jews) will once again establish their empire and God will elect them anew"[37]. This is, according to Strauss, Spinoza's "political testament" and a "neutral consideration of the possibility condition [Möglichkeitsbedingung] for the restoration of the Jewish state"[38]. In other words, with this statement Spinoza did not express any wish or desire for a possible restoration of the Jewish state, but merely discussed the condition of its possibility. Spinoza's attitude is thus judged by Strauss as a sort of condescension "from the height of his philosophical neutrality"[39], which leaves to the Jews the decision whether or not to liberate themselves from their religion to reestablish a Jewish state. Furthermore, "he voiced this view not as a Jew, but as a neutral; and he did not even voice it, but rather just tossed it off"[40].
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In his conclusion, Strauss asks whether Spinoza's testament is about the liberation of the Law from the "spirit that makes the political restoration impossible"[41], i.e., from the foundations of the Jewish religion, advocating a transformation of the Law into "a means of national preservation" or "a form of national life"[42]. His answer takes Cohen's judgment into account:

Not in this way, not with veiled words and a weary heart, should we bid farewell to Spinoza -- if, in fact, we must bid farewell to him as someone on whose conscience is a "humanly incomprehensible betrayal" (Cohen) of our nation. For a moment at least, we would like to disregard the popular principles on the strength of which one saw oneself compelled either to canonize Spinoza or to condemn him. (…) And still we ask whether we owe him veneration? Spinoza will be venerated as long as there are men who know how to appreciate the inscription on his signet-ring ("caute") or, to put it plainly: as long as there are men who know what it means to utter [the word]: independence [Unabhängigkeit].[43]

Concluding his essay, Strauss refers to independence, whose semantic frame includes liberty and freedom: the independence of Spinoza from the community of his origins, the political independence of the Jews, which Strauss considered to be Spinoza's testament to the Jews (and which Strauss, as a political Zionist, wished for the Jewish nation), and also independence as intellectual freedom, exemplified in different manners by both Spinoza and Cohen. In this respect, Strauss seems to include Cohen implicitly among those who should (or do, even though unaware) "venerate" Spinoza because of Spinoza's freedom in thinking and philosophizing, if for no other reason. By virtue of being a thinker who was deeply inspired by the spirit of the Enlightenment Cohen might thus be considered an heir of Spinoza's teaching, namely of his independence and freedom[44].


The result of Strauss's evaluation of Cohen's critique of Spinoza is a successful apology of Baruch Spinoza and his TPT. Nevertheless, it might also be considered a vindication of Cohen, namely from two perspectives.

First, Cohen's question is taken by Strauss with the seriousness that it deserves: Strauss shows in this case -- as in the rest of his life -- a reverence not only for Cohen as someone whom he called "a passionate philosopher and a Jew passionately devoted to Judaism"[45] and whose figure fascinated him from early on, but also for Cohen's teaching from a more strictly philosophical point of view. Strauss articulated the importance of Cohen's legacy for his own approach to Spinoza in his "Preface" to Spinoza's Critique of Religion. In spite of his defense of Spinoza against Cohen's attack, Strauss still seems to look for a legitimate reason for Cohen's attitude towards Spinoza, showing himself as a disciple whose reverence for his master remains untouched by the fact that he can't agree with him. In this sense, Strauss's position is "Cohenian" since he answers questions raised by Cohen in keeping with the philosophical spirit of "independence" that he considers the common property of both, Spinoza and Cohen.

Second, Strauss also seems to follow in Cohen's footsteps in that he espouses independence and freedom of thought while struggling to remain a philosopher and a Jew (if not a believing Jew) in a non-Jewish world. In this sense, Strauss implicitly affirms the relevance of Cohen's legacy for the Jewish philosophical heritage when he takes as starting points for his own inquiries the very questions raised by Cohen. More explicitly, Strauss maintains that what Cohen said "is by no means irrelevant, and is (…) worthy of the study of everyone"[46] who is concerned with the struggle of being both a philosopher and a Jew. Strauss seems to be "Cohenian" because he shared with Cohen this same struggle, thus inheriting some of Cohen's virtue of fidelity. Delivering a lecture at the Hillel House of the University of Chicago, Strauss argued that "it is impossible not to remain a Jew. It is impossible to run away from one's origins"[47] ; Strauss's argument sounds undoubtedly Cohenian: "It is necessary to accept one's past. That means that out of this undeniable necessity one must make a virtue. The virtue in question is fidelity, loyalty, piety in the old Latin sense of the word pietas"[48]. It is worthy of notice that Strauss cited Cohen's concept of fidelity also in the second-last paragraph of his "Introductory Essay" to Hermann Cohen's Religion of Reason: "Almost his (viz. Cohen's) whole work, his whole life bears testimony to this fidelity and his gratitude to the Jewish heritage -- a fidelity limited only by his intellectual probity, by a virtue that he traced to that very heritage"[49]. It seems to me that Strauss, in his lifelong struggle to remain both a philosopher and loyal Jew, exercised the same virtue.



1. Letter to Dr. Gottschalk, December 28, 1931; however, the letter proceeds with the following statement: "Cohen is much too original and deep a thinker that the doubtfulness of his teaching can release us thereby from listening, in any event, to that which he says" (cited in Alan Udoff, "On Leo Strauss: An Introductory Account", Leo Strauss's Thought: Toward a Critical Engagement, ed. by Alan Udoff, Boulder: L. Rinner Publishers, 1991: 1-29, esp. pp. 22-23 n3).

2. Steven Schwarzschild, "Do Noachites have to believe in Revelation? (A passage in Dispute between Maimonides, Spinoza, Mendelssohn and H. Cohen)" in The Jewish Quarterly Review, 52 (1961-1962), pp. 296-308, and 53 (1962-1963), pp. 30-65, esp. p. 38

3. Hermann Cohen, "Die religiösen Bewegungen der Gegenwart" repr. in Hermann Cohens Jüdische Schriften, ed. B. Strauß, with an introduction by Franz Rosenzweig, Berlin: Schwetschke, 1924, (three volumes; henceforth: JS I-III), vol. I, 36-65, esp. 55.

4. JS III 361.

5. Franz Nauen, "Hermann Cohen's Perceptions of Spinoza: A Reappraisal", AJSReview, 4 (1979), pp. 111-124, esp. p. 123.

6. See Hermann Cohen, Kants Begründung der Ethik, 2nd edition, Berlin: Bruno Cassirer, 1910, p. 467.

7. Cohen had many theoretical reasons to dislike Spinoza and his pantheism but these reasons fail to explain the violence of Cohen's verdict on Spinoza. For a better understanding of Cohen's approach to Spinoza, see Nauen, op. cit., and cf. Ernst Simon, "Zu Hermann Cohens Spinoza-Auffassung", repr. in Brücken. Gesammelte Aufsätze, Heidelberg: Lambert Schneider, 1965, pp. 205-214, and Hans Liebeschütz, "Hermann Cohen und Spinoza", Bulletin of the Leo Baeck Institute, 12 (December 1960), pp. 225-238.

8. See Helmut Holzhey, Cohen und Natorp, 2 vols., Basel/Stuttgart: Schwabe & Co., 1986, vol. 1, p. 37; Sylvain Zac, La philosophie religieuse de Hermann Cohen, Paris: J. Vrin, 1984, p. 19.

9. See Hermann Cohen, System der Philosophie. Zweiter Teil: Ethik des reinen Willens, Berlin: Bruno Cassirer, repr. in Werke, vol. 7, with an English Introduction by S. S. Schwarzschild, Hildesheim: Olms, 1981, esp. pp. 569-570 (henceforth ErW). For a description of Cohen's ethical theory of virtues, see Andrea Poma, The critical philosophy of Hermann Cohen, transl. by John Denton, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.

10. ErW 577.

11. Hermann Cohen, "Der Religionswechsel in der neuen Ära des Antisemitismus", Allgemeine Zeitung des Judentums, 2. Oktober 1890, pp. 489-490, repr. in JS II 342-345.

12. See ErW 583: "Without fidelity, ethical self-consciousness remains a goal that the ethical work-in-progress will never achieve". See also Hartwig Wiedebach, Die Bedeutung der Nationalität für Hermann Cohen, Hildesheim, Olms, 1997, esp. p. 44.

13. See ErW 572.

14. Cohen, Hermann, Die Religion der Vernunft aus den Quellen des Judentums, nach dem Manuskript des Verfassers neu durchgearbeitet und mit einem Nachwort versehen von Bruno Strauß, Frankfurt am Main: Kauffmann (henceforth RV), 1929; trans. S. Kaplan with an Introduction by L. Strauss, Religion of Reason out of the sources of Judaism, New York: Frederick Ungar (henceforth RoR), 1972; RV 509, RoR 441. Here, incidentally, Treue is translated as "faithfulness." I prefer to use "fidelity" as the best equivalent to the German Treue.

15. This can be seen, in Cohen's opinion, especially by looking at Spinoza's explanation of the ben noah: see RV 379-388. A discussion of Cohen's objections to Spinoza on this topic can be found in Schwarzschild, op. cit.

16. JS III 363.

17. Nauen, op. cit., p. 124.

18. Leo Strauss, "Cohens Analyse der Bibelwissenschaft Spinozas", Der Jude, vol. VIII (1924), pp. 295-314, repr. in Leo Strauss, Gesammelte Schriften, ed. by Heinrich Meier, Stuttgart: Verlag J. B. Metzler (henceforth: GS 1-3), vol. 1, 1997, pp. 363-386; Engl. in Leo Strauss, The Early Writings (1921-1932), translated and edited by Michael Zank, Albany (N.Y.): State University of New York Press, 2002, pp. 140-172.

19. Die Religionskritik Spinozas als Grundlage seiner Bibelwissenschaft, Berlin: Akademieverlag, 1930.

20. Cf. Michael Zank, "Introduction" in Leo Strauss, The Early Writings (1921-1932), pp. 10-11.

21. See Alexander Altmann, "Leo Strauss: 1899-1973", Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, XLI-XLII (1973-1974), xxxiii-xxxvi, esp. p. xxxvi; Alan Udoff, "On Leo Strauss: An Introductory Account", loc. cit.; Kenneth Hart Green, "Leo Strauss as a Modern Jewish Thinker", in Leo Strauss, Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of the Modernity, ed. by Kenneth Hart Green, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997, pp. 1-84, esp. pp. 17-25; Michael Zank, "Introduction" in Leo Strauss, The Early Writings (1921-1932), esp. p. 40 n33; Leora Batnitzky, "Hermann Cohen and Leo Strauss", in Hermann Cohen's Ethics, ed. by David Novak and Robert Gibbs, forthcoming, which analyzes Strauss's philosophical relation to Cohen from a methodological point of view. (I wish to thank Leora Batnitzky who was so kind as to provide me with an advance copy of her hitherto unpublished essay.)

22. Leo Strauss, "Zur Bibelwissenschaft Spinozas und seiner Vorläufer", Korrespondenzblatt des Vereins zur Gründung und Erhaltung einer Akademie für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, 7 (1926), pp. 1-22; repr. in GS 1, pp. 389-414; Engl. in The Early Writings (1921-1932), pp. 173-200, esp. p. 173.

23. Franz Rosenzweig, "Einleitung" in Hermann Cohen, "Ein Ungedruckter Vortrag Hermann Cohens über Spinozas Verhältnis zum Judentum", in Festgabe zum Zehnjährigen Bestehen der Akademie für die Wissenschaft des Judentums. 1919-1929, Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1929, pp. 42-44, p. 43.

24. Leo Strauss, The Early Writings (1921-1932), p. 173. For the original, see "Zur Bibelwissenschaft Spinozas und seiner Vorläufer", loc. cit., p. 183.

25. Leo Strauss, The Early Writings (1921-1932), p. 147 (in the original the entire sentence is emphasized as the general conclusion to section I of the essay).

26. Ibid., p. 152 (in the original, the entire sentence is emphasized as the general conclusion to section II of the essay).

27. Ibid., p. 157 (in the original, the entire sentence is emphasized as the general conclusion to section III of the essay).

28. Ibid., p. 158.

29. Ibid., p. 161.

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid.

32. Leo Strauss, "The Testament of Spinoza", Bayerische Israelitische Gemeindezeitung. München, vol. 8 n. 21 (November 1st, 1932), p. 322, 324-326, repr. in GS 1, pp. 415-422; Engl. in The Early Writings (1921-1932), pp. 216-223.

33. The Early Writings (1921-1932), pp. 219-20 (emphases in the original).

34. Ibid., p. 220.

35. Ibid.

36. See Leo Strauss, Die Religionskritik Spinozas als Grundlage seiner Bibelwissenschaft. Untersuchungen zu Spinozas Theologisch-politischem Traktat, Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1930, repr. in GS 1, pp. 1-361, esp. p. 214; Engl. transl. by E. M. Sinclair, Spinoza's Critique of Religion, New York: Schocken, 1965. It seems to me worth of notice that Cohen also remarked about Spinoza's process of estrangement [Entfremdung] from Judaism (see JS III 360). Here we may notice an important difference between Cohen's and Strauss's understanding of Spinoza's relation to Jewish identity: Cohen considered Spinoza as continuously related to the Jewish world, whereas Strauss considered it possible and legitimate to acknowledge Spinoza's claim of neutrality toward Judaism as a result of his distance from Judaism.

37. Cited in "The Testament of Spinoza", loc. cit., p. 220.

38. Ibid.

39. Ibid., p. 221.

40. Ibid., p. 222.

41. Ibid., p. 221.

42. Ibid.

43. Ibid., p. 222 (emphases in the original).

44. See also Leo Strauss, "Preface" to Spinoza's Critique of Religion, loc. cit., pp. 137-177, esp. p. 168, where Strauss argues that Cohen seemed unaware of Spinoza's legacy in his own way of thinking and philosophical assumptions.

45. Leo Strauss, "A Giving of Accounts", repr. in Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of the Modernity, pp. 457-466, esp. p. 460.

46. Leo Strauss, "Why We Remain Jews", repr. in Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of the Modernity, pp. 311-356, esp. p. 344.

47. Ibid. p. 317.

48. Ibid., p. 320.

49. Leo Strauss, "Introductory Essay" in Hermann Cohen, Religion of Reason Out of the Sources of Judaism, repr. in Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity, pp. 267-282, esp. p. 281.
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