Athens and Jerusalem: Myths and Mirrors in Strauss’ Vision of the West

Nancy Levene

Abstract: The distinction between Athens and Jerusalem is an iconic one. It serves to encapsulate two strands of the Western heritage; it underscores both difference (of region and sensibility) and relationship; and it identifies two ancient cities with concepts and contexts that remain alive into the present. This essay considers the structure of the distinction in the light of its indelible inscription by Leo Strauss. What makes Strauss’ version of Athens and Jerusalem worthy of attention is that for all that his political philosophy has drawn renewed interest of late, his influential treatment of the foundations of the West—absorbed by so many other accounts—remains unplumbed. My intent is to revisit Strauss’ Athens and Jerusalem, not in order to update the terms but to reimagine the distinction altogether. I hold that Strauss is half right: he is right that Athens and Jerusalem are fundamentally different conceptual spaces. But beyond the insight of difference as such, it is possible to tell a better story about the nature of their difference and thus about their contact and conflict. It is Spinoza—Strauss’ frequent interlocutor—who uncovers the blind spots in Strauss’ view and assists in the project, once again, of conceiving of the complexity of the West.

Biography: Nancy Levene is an associate professor of religious studies at Indiana University. Her academic interests are focused on the intellectual history and thought of the European Modern West, including the conception and periodization of modernity. Her first book Spinoza's Revelation: Religion, Democracy, and Reason (Cambridge University Press, 2004) takes up Spinoza’s critique of religion in the light of his defense of both divine and human laws, and argues that this defense was designed to redraw religion, as well as reason, in political and historical terms. In her current research, she is working on borders in European historiography, and on the motif of reason as a mode of desiring to escape such borders. She co-edited Textual Reasonings (Eerdmans, 2002). Additional interests include critical theory, German idealism, Marx, theories of democracy, gender and cultural studies, and critical readings of literature (including the Bible and its interpretations, the 19th century novel, and contemporary fiction), visual art, and music.

Volume 3, Number 2 (Spring 2008) pp. 113