Sense and Nonsense: Leo Strauss on Prayer

In a new collection of essays by the late (d. 1973) Professor Leo Strauss (Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, University of Chicago Press), a very large part of the book is devoted not so much to Plato but to Judaism. This is not accidental, of course, because it delicately hints at the proper understanding of the relation of reason and revelation, more particularly the relation of the Old Law to Plato. The last essay in the book is devoted in particular to Strauss’ early teacher and friend, Professor Hermann Cohen (1842-1918). This essay was originally published in 1972, as an introduction to the English language edition of Cohen’s The Religion of Reason. Near the end of this essay, there is a brief, penetrating discussion of the relation of prayer to the Law (the Torah).

“The soul and inwardness of the Law is prayer. Prayer gives life to all actions prescribed by the law.” Strauss himself, in recounting his recollection of Cohen’s views, worried that Cohen was perhaps too “optimistic” for the realities in which Jews after his time were to pray. Prayer, however, relates man directly to God, since the soul is God-made, not exclusively man-made.

The love of God is the highest form of human love; it is longing for God, for nearness to Him. This must not make one forget that man’s longing for God is longing for his redemption, for his moral salvation — a longing that originates in anguish. But man is not merely his soul; all human cares and sorrows become legitimate themes of prayer.

Strauss, in this context, had a good deal to say about humility and how it differed from the Greek great-souled man, who knew his own worth. This was, perhaps, but another suggestion that revelation understood the human heart in a way that even a Plato or Aristotle might have missed, ,through no fault of their own.

Prayer, thus, is a counter to the deceits of intellectual life. Cohen had mentioned the danger to veracity “that comes from one’s fear of being despised by flesh and blood for confessing and professing religious truth.” No doubt this is mindful, as Strauss notes elsewhere, of the famous passage in The Republic about the fate of the good man in any existing city, or of the Man of Sorrow in Isaiah. (Christ is never mentioned.) But it is also an indication of the fact that spiritual life must attend to what is deep in the human soul, to understand it, if possible, or to have it explained to us who made the soul in the first place (revelation).

Interestingly, for the Jews, the synagogue (that place to which they retired for unique existence especially after the destruction of the Temple) is not called a “house of prayer” but a “house of learning,” for the minute study of the “613 particular commandments of which the Law is traditionally said to consist.” Moreover, this means that prayer is not something done in solitude, but “in the congregation that lives in anticipation of the messianic kingdom of God.” Over the ages, the congregation was about the study of the law, the revelation of God, whose dignity and possibility reason could neither deny nor prove. This was where the Jews repaired when they had no polity; it is what kept them what they are.

Cohen did write well in martyrdom, Strauss remarked. This served many Jews with consolation when persecution came, after Cohen’s own days. Strauss added, however, that Cohen “did not provide what no human being could have provided, a way of dealing with a situation like that of Jews in Soviet Russia, who are killed spiritually by being cut off from the sources of Judaism.” (One wonders in passing whether this might not be at the root of the reason why the aid of Christians to Christians under Soviet rule is so ineffective, almost non-existent, while that of the Jews is so powerful.) On this passage too, we can reflect on whether Strauss meant simply to state a fact or to intimate, in his habitually cryptic way, the need of a form of prayer, not exactly independent of the Law and the congregation, but one directed from the whole person (“all human cares and sorrows”) to God, whether such a form of prayer has in fact and in humility been also revealed.

The Christian, of course, cannot but profit from these reminders of the Hebrew tradition of prayer and its abidingness in the intellectual Jewish community. The Christian recalls that he is also told to pray in humility, even to close the door before he does, if he is to retain that veracity of which Strauss and Cohen spoke. “Above all, the dangers of intellectual probity are impenetrable for man; if all other purposes of prayer could be questioned, its necessity for veracity, for purity of soul cannot.”

Is it so strange, we cannot help but wonder, to find a penetrating reflection on prayer in a book evidently on political philosophy and Plato, by a Jew pondering the nature of the Law? Contrary to so much of the academic profession, Strauss understood that such things belonged together in any complete intellectual understanding of the reality even of the city. Likewise, John Paul II is often strongly criticized from elements in Christianity following what Strauss called “the modern project”, for preferring prayer to ideology as a solution to action in the world. In the famous essay “Jerusalem and Athens”, also reprinted in this volume, Strauss again referred to his esteemed mentor from his early German days, Hermann Cohen. Strauss again worried that Cohen did not realize the depths of what would happen as a result of “modern political thought” and action. “The worst things he (Cohen) experienced were the Dreyfus scandal and the pogroms instigated by Czarist Russia: he did not experience Communist Russia and Hitler Germany.”

By including the Law and the Prophets in any complete understanding of political philosophy, Strauss questioned in the name of the classics the basic ideas that resulted in these modern totalitarian systems. These arose not by accident but from the very positions of modern political thought itself. Therefore, to save ourselves we must return, intellectually, to the two roots of our civilization. Strauss continued:

More disillusioned regarding modern culture than Cohen was, we wonder whether the two ingredients of modern culture (Jerusalem and Athens), of the modern synthesis, are not more solid than that synthesis. Catastrophes and horrors of a magnitude hitherto unknown, which we have seen and through which we have lived, were better provided for, or made intelligible, by both Plato and the prophets than by the modern belief in progress.

Again there is a silence about Christianity. Was it because for Strauss, modern Christianity would not be able to resist joining the ideologies? Or were its classical solutions to the Athens and Jerusalem question in Augustine and in Aquinas more cogent than he realized? Prayer, in any case, is in the New Law pretty much as Strauss described it in the reflections of Cohen with its cautions. Prayer is not, in this sense, something aside from politics, but a guarantee that the true Law, the true Lord, is that to whom we pray.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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