Civilisation's alternative roots

'Spectacularly erudite' survey of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment philosophy highlights some morally dubious aspects

By David Conway, September 14, 2012

Socrates and the Jews/ Miriam Leonard/ University of Chicago Press, £29

Third-century theologian Tertullian

Third-century theologian Tertullian

In asking the question, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”, the third-century theologian, Tertullian, dismissed the entire corpus of ancient Greek literature. So effective was the question that, within a couple of centuries, Plato’s Academy was shut and familiarity with Greek language and literature lost to Europe for more than a millennium. Not until the Renaissance was it recovered, whereupon admiration for the achievement of ancient Greece and Rome steadily grew among educated Europeans.

This encounter with the literature of classical antiquity in time issued in that great effervescence of 18th-century secular thought known as the Enlightenment. Tertullian’s rhetorical question was now posed in reverse: What of any import or truth could there possibly be in religion grounded in “revelation” rather than reason, the hallmark of ancient Greek philosophy? Christianity was now in the firing-line, along with Judaism, which, for the previous two millennia, had been deemed not only misguided, but pernicious.

In a spectacularly erudite tour de force, Miriam Leonard, Professor of Greek Literature at University College, London, traces the vicissitudes of opinion on Tertullian’s question during the past two centuries among Europe’s leading intellects. She exposes how many of them harboured nothing better than crude antisemitic prejudice on the subject, dressed up in metaphysical and philological garb.

They include Kant, Hegel, Feuerbach, Marx, Renan, Nietzsche and Heidegger. Small wonder this coterie is held in such high esteem today by Israel’s most inveterate critics on the left. Leonard shows how void of any rational basis were their various “demonstrations” of the intellectual or moral inferiority of the Jews or, worse still, their malign influence or intent.

Should one of them be sympathetic to Christianity, he would invariably find a way to align it with Athens, not Jerusalem. Were he to oppose all religion, Christianity would then be aligned with Judaism and the Jews blamed for it. Athens escaped flawless.

It seems that only one 19th-century thinker to meditate on the differences between Hellenism and Hebraism remains untainted by antisemitism. This was Matthew Arnold, to whom Professor Leonard devotes a chapter.
She also examines two seminal Jewish thinkers who stood up against the prejudices held by so many of their gentile peers. The opening chapter is about Moses Mendelssohn, the 18th-century champion of Jewish orthodoxy as a model of toleration of diversity and of how religion need not clash with secular knowledge.

The closing chapter is about Sigmund Freud, a “godless Jew” who, despite being steeped in secular culture, saw in the abstract intellectuality of the religion of his forefathers the true source of western science and philosophy.

Professor Leonard’s is a valuable corrective to much groundless and malign philosophical prejudice.

David Conway is a visiting fellow at the School of Philosophy and Cultural History at the University of Essex

David Conway is a visiting fellow at the School of Philosophy and Cultural History at the University of Essex

Last updated: 2:29pm, September 14 2012