Jerusalem in Athens: On the Biblical Epigraphs to Leo Strauss's Natural Right and History



The Old Testament epigraphs used by Leo Strauss for his study Natural Right and History tend invariably to vex his readers. In the book itself and in other of his writings, Strauss explicitly states that the Old Testament tradition does not know ‘nature’ in the philosophical sense, and hence the concept of ‘natural right’ is unknown or alien to that tradition. Another, more obvious problem they present has been seemingly universally passed over by commentators: neither epigraph tells the reader anything explicitly about right, natural or otherwise. One cannot claim them to contain lessons about right, because such lessons are not directly extractable from the epigraphs as they stand. Here I wish to argue that Strauss's choice of epigraph does two things: first, it points to the fact that Old Testament stories can be given a political reading, or used to illustrate political lessons. In implying this, Strauss is following Machiavelli, who is the most important figure in Natural Right and History. Second, the epigraphs point to the deeply problematic nature of the concept of natural right, primarily the equivocal nature of the term, a difficulty never made explicit by Strauss but the awareness of which permeates his study.