October 27, 2004

Athens and Jerusalem

Philosophers have celebrated Greece and Rome as foundational pillars of Western civilization. While honoring Christianity as a major contributor to Western civilization, conservatives have attempted to defend a cultural synthesis of Jerusalem and Athens, which currently goes by the name of "traditional values."

This synthesis informs twentieth-century conservatism. It is what constitutes the civilized nations of the world---the West after 9/11. The conservatives experience 9/11 as negation, as a nothing, and they reassert their civilized heritage in response.

If, from the earliest centuries the West has been built upon its foundation, then these foundations have faultines. The faultlines in foundation are:

Greek philosophy of Athens on the one hand, and, on the other, the spiritual aspiration of Jerusalem.

"Athens" stands for the view that truth is discovered through reason.

"Jerusalem" stands for the view that truth is delivered through the insights of revelation.

"Athens" stands for cognition, philosophy, and science.

"Jerusalem" stands for the spiritual aspiration to holiness, or purity of soul.

If think of the two cities as representing reason and revelation or truths we can arrive at through the operation of human reason and truths revealed to us by God, then western civilization is a product of the inevitable tension and tentative reconciliation between these truths.

The fault lines that separate Jerusalem (faith) and Athens (reason) are becoming more pronounced with the rise of Christian fundamentalism, as this opposes a (bad) Athens to (good) Jerusalem and then asserts the primacy of Jerusalem. This exclusion reaches back to antiquity, to those Christians (such as Tertullian) who desired to exclude Greek philosophy from the Christian perspective.

In contrast, Leo Strauss argued that, notwithstanding their theoretical disagreement as to the end or ends served by the moral virtues, revelation and reason had agreed substantially on what in practice morality was. And I had taken my bearings further from Strauss's assertion that the very life of western civilization depended upon the continuing dialogue between revelation and reason.

A central theme of Strauss’ was the "crisis of the West." He argued that Western civilization had been built on two great pillars: "Athens and Jerusalem." These great cities represented the two forces—reason and revelation—that gave life to the West. But modern philosophy, Strauss observed, was dedicated to the overthrow of these pillars .Strauss's critique of modern philosophy was directed towards overcoming what he often called the self-destruction of reason, so that the authority equally of classical philosophy and the Bible, with respect to virtue and morality, might be restored.

I have put that in a Nietzschean way as one of Strauss's legacies is a strongly negative assessment of Nietzsche. Nietzsche is interpreted by Strauss as the modern philosopher most at odds with that tradition; and the one most responsible for the charcater of twentieth-century culture--relativism, godlessness, nihilism, and the breakdown of family values. Hence the conservative talk about "cultural catastrophe" and the disastrous trend away from studying the great works of these two traditions in the modern university.

In this conservative discourse the decline of Western civilization is due to our loss of connection to the classics of Greece and Rome. The conservatives one look into the nihilistic abyss with Nietzsche and they see the postmodernists merely wandering aimlessly along the bottom in the dark.

Is the relationship between Athens and Jerusalem one of conflict? A continued conversation? A dialectical relationship? A synthesis?

The effect of the secular Enlightenment tradition is to push Christianity into the background as irrelevant, or to deny its relevance. Christianity, in response, has attempted to deny or surpass Enlightenment assumptions, by philosophising God though pushing him out beyond the metaphysics of the Enlightenment; or pulled God inside the reach of metaphysics by formulating him around emotional-religious experience.rather than simply recognising them for what they are.

The secular Enlightenment tradition has dictated the terms of the engagement, and thus consequently largely determine the state of various post-Enlightenment forms of Christianity.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at October 27, 2004 11:37 AM | TrackBack

Strauss also advocated a bizarre way of reading texts, using a distinction between "esoteric" and "exoteric" doctrines. Plus he made some interesting comments in the 1930's about the ineffectiveness of democracy in relation to Hitler. While his influence on the Neocons may be disputed, his interpretation of certain cannonical texts are strange, to say the least. Ultimately, I think his influence is strictly on the conservative end of the culture wars. Beyond that, I am not sure that he is necessarily worth much.

Posted by: Alain on October 28, 2004 02:48 AM


You might be interested in having a look at a short piece by Habermas entitled, "Israel or Athens: where does Anamnestic Reason Belong." in The Liberating Power of Symbols: Philosophical Essays (Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought)
by Jurgen Habermas


Posted by: Ali Rizvi on October 28, 2004 02:42 PM


Here is one suggestion from an earlier post as to the historical importance of Strauss.

Here is another suggestion.

Both suggest that Strauss' importance lies in his recover of the value of political philssophy in an age of positivist political science.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on October 28, 2004 05:20 PM

I guess that Habermas paper is not online.

Would you have anyway of posting it on your Habermas Reflections?

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on October 28, 2004 05:22 PM


I am not sure how I can post the piece on my site without violating copyright but I would be happy to send you a print copy of the piece if you give me your postal address.


Posted by: Gary on October 28, 2004 06:01 PM

It is not online judging by this.

I'll send you my street address. I do not have access to a university library these days.

Thanks for the offer.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on October 28, 2004 06:14 PM


Thank you for the references. I looked at them and you do a good job of summarizing Strauss' outlook. Years ago I read "City and Man" and he certainly re-emphasizes the distinction ( and even opposition) between politics and philosophy. But he seems like such a conservative thinker (even reactionary at times) I am still a bit confused as to why you find him useful. To say that knowledge (philosophy) is opposed and/or destructive of opinion (politics) seems to me to be a good starting point, but does not go nearly far enough. True politcal philosophy today is one that engages the question of what is the good life, and in fact undermines the tacit assumptions of our "neoliberal capitalist" consensus. Why adopt a "politics of moderation" when so much of what is happening today screams out for critical thinking, the type of thinking that philosophy can bring to bare.

Posted by: Alain on October 29, 2004 04:51 AM

Ali has sent me the paper by Habermas mentioned above: 'Israel or Athens: Where does Anamnestic Reason Belong?'

It explores the work of the theologian Johann Baptist Metz and the way Metz reckons that a conservative Catholicism can link up with,and facilitate, the enmancipatory potnetial of the Enlightenment.

I will post on it when I have a moment.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on November 6, 2004 08:05 AM

i need receive for us the copy of the book athens and jerusalem

Posted by: jucelino on September 14, 2005 12:48 AM
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