Wednesday, January 9, 2013


Miriam Leonard, Socrates and the Jews: Hellenism and Hebraism from Moses Mendelssohn to Sigmund Freud. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2012. Pp. xiv, 245. ISBN 9780226472478. $45.00.

Reviewed by Constanze Güthenke, Princeton University (

Version at BMCR home site


In Socrates and the Jews, Miriam Leonard takes on some heavy thinkers. Just as in her first book, Athens in Paris. Ancient Greece and the Political in Post-War French Thought (2005), she offers illuminating readings of a range of philosophical texts which owe much of their complexity to their use of antiquity. For one, she offers a genealogy of sorts: Kant, Hegel, Marx and Freud (to name a few) were important interlocutors for Derrida and his contemporaries. More importantly, she extends the frame chronologically, but also structurally, to address the hidden, deeply interlinked, and no less crucial subject that has given conceptual depth to most modern thought about and with antiquity: namely the role of Judaism and the Jews.

At the end of the book, Leonard quotes Jonathan Boyarin on "[t]he fact that the Jews in Europe can still be a current question (as it evidently is) suggests that, for reasons that are contingent but remarkably durable, debate over the place of the Jews indicates not an immaturity in the liberal conception of the state, but part of its constitutive discourse" (223). Like him, she believes that the debate over Judaism's place has been foundational to modern notions of statehood and of modernity itself: the opposition between Hellenism and Judaism, an opposition that has been with us since the Church Fathers introduced it as rhetorical strategy, has been an integral element of the accounts we have given of our modern selves and of our political and cultural history.

The result is a thought-provoking, extremely well-argued demystification on two fronts: as with the French thinkers, she offers lucid readings of texts that enjoy a reputation among classicists as being important-yet-very-hard-to- read, which means they are in fact not much read at all. But she also shows that those texts have thoroughly shaped our work as classical scholars, our assumptions, questions, and our own disciplinary framework – an insight possibly even more uncomfortable to confront than the conclusion that Athens and Jerusalem have been a staple of our political thinking. The opposition between Athens and Jerusalem is really built on three, not two poles, with Rome its steady point of triangulation. The space that opens up between pagan Greece, monotheistic Judaism, and the Christian world holds a dizzying amount of combinations and oppositions, which in turn intersect with other binaries. In Leonard's narrative, those intersections begin with the big Enlightenment questions about universal reason and its relationship to religion.

Her first chapter deals with the Enlightenment Socrates as the rationalist skeptic held up against a proto-Christian Socrates and a spiritual Plato familiar from Neoplatonism, even though "many of the depictions of Socrates, far from removing him from the Christian framework, only served to highlight it" (25). She structures her analysis around Moses Mendelssohn, like many of her thinkers a German Hellenized Jew. An interlocutor of Kant and a celebrity in the Berlin of his day and beyond, Mendelssohn stood in many ways for the possibility of Jewish emancipation and assimilation. Leonard examines two of the most influential texts of the man his contemporaries referred to as a "German Socrates": on the one hand his wilful modernization of Plato's Phaedo, which suggested a deduction of immortality only from reason, and led to encouragements for Mendelssohn to convert to Christianity, a step allegedly foreshadowed by his Enlightened Socratic position. On the other hand we have his treatise Jerusalem, or on Religious Power and Judaism, an attempt to give Judaism the same cachet reserved for Greco-Roman antiquity and a bold framing of monarchic Jerusalem as an alternative model for the Enlightened polity. Leonard shows a figure whose image was (quite literally) caught up between a range of binaries: materiality vs. idealism; reason vs. belief; historical progress vs. ahistorical stagnation – a set of tropes that continued through all subsequent versions of a debate initially about the relationship between reason and religion.

Her second chapter interlaces the development of Hegel's dialectics with his early theological writings and pronouncements on Judaism, which themselves engage with Mendelssohn and Kant. (As a matter of principle, Leonard carefully traces networks of knowledge, rather than simply juxtaposing texts that deal with similar issues). In Hegel's writings, the Jewish, Christian and Hellenic worlds become "philosophemes", around which other increasingly familiar thematic clusters could be arranged: freedom and beauty, reason and subjectivity, tyranny and love, masters and slaves, immortality and citizenship. Hegel's Socrates now stood for the rise of subjectivity of thought, with a 'Jewish' position as that which must ultimately be sublated (aufgehoben), making the Greek/Jew antithesis central in his dialectics of history.

One of the strands Leonard follows is Hegel's contrasting of Abraham and Noah as masters of a hostile nature with the "beautiful pair" of Deucalion and Pyrrha, who stand for a rather Winckelmannian attitude of charity, youthful reconciliation, beauty and love in a post-cataclysmic world. Hegel's selective reading of Greek mythology serves to make a larger point. His culture heroes are all marked by a nostalgic willingness to reconcile themselves to exile – in contrast to the turn away from community Hegel sees in the figure of Abraham. Almost as an aside Leonard mentions Horkheimer and Adorno's famous post-War critique of the Enlightenment, which made Odysseus the figure whose reason inevitably collapses into violence. It shows that one better choose one's mythological figures well, since the choice of ancient materials can support almost any constellation and the binaries at play in the cultural histories of modernity. The difficulty to maintain control over what figures to invoke, though, is one factor that kept the oppositional force between Athens and Jerusalem constant.

The chapter closes with a reading of Hegel's and Nietzsche's thoughts on tragedy as a distinctly Greek and explicitly non-Jewish genre. In Hegel's extraordinary statement that "[a]mong the fine creations of the ancient and modern world – and I am acquainted with nearly everything in such a class, and one ought to know it and it is quite possible – the Antigone of Sophokles is from this point of view in my judgment the most excellent and satisfying work of art" (here p. 95, from 1986 (VL Ästhetik), 550), we get a glimpse of the optimism of knowing all of classical antiquity – a belief in control that became increasingly difficult to maintain. One way of maintaining it, as she shows, was to make Greece and Rome alone the subject matter of classical studies as we (still) know it.

If classical scholarship started focussing inwards, the world around it, ancient as much as modern, was growing larger. Scholarly knowledge of the Orient, of Sanskrit and Indo-European grew within the structures of globally expanding empires. The third chapter, on Matthew Arnold's famous pairing of Hellenism and Hebraism in Culture and Anarchy (1869), moves away from Germany, though it keeps German within sight. Leonard pairs Arnold with some of his textual interlocutors, among them the French philologist Ernest Renan, who contrasted the adaptability of Indo-European with the inflexibility of the Semitic languages, raising this opposition to the level of a worldview in which the categories of Aryan and Semite became all-inclusive. By tracing the intellectual networks around Arnold, which also included the political debates over Jewish citizen rights,, she shows Arnold's ambivalent use of his conceptual pair as both a catalyst for cultural critique and as inevitably implicated in a language of race, nation and empire that affected scientific philology as much as cultural politics. Against received scholarly opinion, she also shows that Arnold's Hellenism is not simply a naïve endorsement of an already superseded German model, but rather a subtle criticism of a German philhellenism that he partly derived from his admiration of the German Jewish poet (and convert) Heinrich Heine. Like Arnold, who in Leonard's telling is a more conflicted critic than often credited, Heine operated with a strong opposition between the Hellenic and Hebraic, even if the two men could differ entirely in the sets of attributes they filled those categories with. They shared an understanding of them as psychological predispositions, though, which would come to last well into the world of Freudian psychoanalysis not long after.

Before turning to Freud, the fourth chapter examines the transitional generation of Young Hegelians such as Feuerbach, Marx, and Nietzsche. In an age of radical critique of religion, their thinking, even if no longer so invested in approving the transition from Hellenism to Christianity, did not abandon the structures of the Jew/Greek antithesis. If the Enlightenment had engaged with the historical Socrates, the political and religious critique of this generation was fired by another debate over the historicity of a founding figure. David Strauss's Life of Jesus (1835), like Renan's later work of the same title (1897), fired new forms of criticism by arguing for the cultural transformations of a historical, not a divine, character. Feuerbach, in turn, treated religious doctrine as a product of human will and argued for a generalised sense of Jewish egoism as a motor in the history of monotheism. As for Marx, Leonard homes in on his uncomfortable early essay 'On the Jewish Question' (1843), which reverses Hegelian argument by claiming Jews as the ultimate carriers of modernity (rather than as a people barred from insight into historical time). The discomfort stems from Marx attaching such modernity to a rough and greedy materialism and other stereotypes of contemporary economic and political behaviour, which leaves all the more exposed his understanding of Hellenism as a potentially liberating option. Leonard teases out Marx's conflicted and insightful thoughts on Greece as a quasi-timeless standard that can of necessity only have temporary usefulness – all the while he assigns different temporalities to the opposing historical cultures of Greece and Judaism. Nietzsche, finally, is another thinker who, like Marx, diagnoses a sickened (Judeo-Christian) modernity that is successful but objectionable, a critique of its quandaries where, again, a non-Christian and non-Jewish Greece is held up as an attractive and radical alternative.

Leonard's last chapter returns to Renan and his short flamboyant Prayer on the Acropolis (1865) – an autobiographical text that reinserts the language of revelation vis-à-vis Greece into the thought of a scholar who made the demystification of Christianity, Jewish tradition and Semitic language his life's work. The visit to Athens prompted reflection on a conflicted philology in which the Semitic or Hebraic stood in the way of a more immediate access to an ancient past. Freud's own 'Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis' (only recounted in 1936), becomes for Leonard the mirror piece of "two profound meditations on the intersection between recollection and philology cut across by the opposition between Hellenism and Hebraism" (189). Leonard concludes with an insight revealed in Freud's writings that can serve as conclusion for the whole book, namely that a modern Hellenism can never be fully secular in its implications, that its co-optation with and by Christianity looms structurally large. She arrives there through Freud's late Moses and Monotheism (1937), which cast Moses as an Egyptian, not a Jew, whose Jewish followers, in an Oedipal act, later killed this founder of their strict monotheistic religion. Rather than joining the scholarly debate over Freud's Jewish identity, Leonard reads his Moses against a cross-section of his other writings that treat Greek and Roman antiquity as rebarbative models for the analytical process, and she untangles his use of Greece and Jerusalem as weights in the balance of his structural analogy between history and trauma, a complex of themes in which Freud essentially goes back over the issues of religion and reason, revelation and scepticism, timelessness and historiography, that had already exercised the Enlightenment.

An epilogue ties together again the strands of her argument: the narrative of a transition from Christian anti-Judaism to secular anti-Semitism, against the backdrop of first an Enlightened critique in the name of universal reason, then a critique of the Enlightenment in the name of particularism and high nationalism. Leonard is interested in the political implications of the "metaphors we live by" (the title of her epilogue), and it is precisely in the act of increasing metaphorization or allegorization of the Greek/Jew opposition that political effects still persist (here she closes the circle with her first book when she shows the reliance of thinkers like Derrida and Lévinas on exactly such allegorizations). In her genealogy, German thinkers play a dominant part, exactly because the trajectories of a German philosophical tradition and a German understanding of philhellenic Bildung were inseparable from the intellectual tradition, the questions and the scholarly skills of German Protestantism. Extending her perspective to Arnold's England and Renan's France, she reminds the reader not only of the intellectual networks that radiated away from that tradition, but she also drives home the point that her findings have consequences for the categories of understanding antiquity that are still part of our modernity.

A question remains about a point Leonard alludes to but never explicitly brings out for reflection, all the more noticeable in a book otherwise so crystal-clear and elegant in its thought-process. This is the question of irony, if anything a hallmark of the figure of Socrates however he was conceived, but also a concept itself approvingly marked in the Romantic tradition. Is irony a Hellenic concept? Leonard shows us paradoxes and conflicted thinkers in dialogue with each other, and the ease with which oppositions over time collapse into each other to be revived in inverted ways. She mentions Heine frequently, who is best known (in Germany, at least) as a poet of irony, and she mentions the ironies of Freud. Is irony, then, a structural necessity, or a historical side-effect in the writings of those called variously the German Socrates, the Jewish Socrates, or the Socrates of the Twentieth Century?

This is an important book, deserving a large and serious readership. Hardbacks by American university presses already tend to be infinitely more affordable than those by British ones, but a paperback edition would nonetheless be welcome. Remaining typos could then easily be corrected too (a list has been sent to the author).

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