Strauss was born into a German Jewish family in 1899, and came of age during the troubled years of the liberal Weimar Republic, which was beset by a multitude of forces on the Left and Right long before the rise of the Nazi Party. Strauss studied philosophy at a time of radicalising political differences. And, like many writers and intellectuals who fled the Nazis’ rise to power, Strauss took the conflicts of the Weimar years with him. In 1949, the politically conservative medievalist Ernst Kantorowicz, then teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, refused to sign a loyalty oath proclaiming that he wasn’t a communist, but stated: ‘I have twice volunteered to fight actively, with rifle and gun, the Left-wing radicals in Germany; but I know also that by joining the White battalions I have prepared, if indirectly and against my intention, the road leading to National-Socialism and its rise to power.’ No esoteric writer, he objected on principle to an academic institution submitting its faculty to a political test.
‘Persecution and the Art of Writing’ was Strauss’s first mature statement of a theory of philosophical citizenship, which balanced the stringent demands of philosophy against the need for decorum in the shared context of the city. In his essay ‘The Spirit of Sparta, or, a Taste of Xenophon’ (1939), Strauss had described how the philosopher and historian Xenophon, in exile from Athens, adapted his mode of speech to suit the needs of the Spartans, who had been compelled to practise virtue in public. In ‘Persecution and the Art of Writing’, Strauss examined ‘the effect of that compulsion, or persecution, on thoughts as well as actions’. ‘Persecution,’ he concluded, in an ambitious and bewildering line, ‘cannot prevent independent thinking. It cannot prevent even the expression of independent thought,’ because of the expedient of esoteric writing.
Strauss imagined a historian living in a totalitarian country who had been ‘led by his investigations to doubt the soundness of the government-sponsored interpretation of the history of religion’. Such a person might pen an attack on the liberal view of the history of religion, which would provide a chance to recount that liberal view’s central argument – and, in the course of that recounting, the historian could drop clues that would alert intelligent readers ‘who love to think’ to the historian’s real sympathy for the liberal view. This is writing between the lines. It’s a way of reaching ‘trustworthy and intelligent readers only’, but ones beyond the author’s circle of correspondence. By writing this way, we preserve the possibility of recognition within an outer shell of misrecognition, even as the seeds blow far and wide.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor