Podcast: Steven Smith on Persecution and the Art of Writing

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There is the argument and there is the context in which that argument is made. It’s easy to sing the praises of American life when you’re sitting in the United States, but you’d likely express yourself differently if you were explaining your views in Soviet Russia. The context of the argument does not, of course, determine its truth or falsehood, but it does help clarify what’s being said and why.

On this week’s podcast, to understand the distinction between argument and context and how it relates to political and religious communities of ideological homogeneity, we turn to one of the 20th century’s greatest thinkers, the German Jewish philosopher Leo Strauss and his 1952 essay “Persecution and the Art of Writing.” Our guide to the essay, and this week’s podcast guest, is the Yale professor of political science Steven Smith, the author of several books about Strauss’s thought. In conversation with Mosaic Editor Jonathan Silver, Smith explains how, in the view of Strauss, writers like Plato and Maimonides used esoteric writing—writing that expressed true beliefs in a careful and guarded way so as to protect themselves from backlash—to get their ideas across, and he ponders the implications that such an interpretive approach can have for writers ancient and modern.

Musical selections in this podcast are drawn from the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, op. 31a, composed by Paul Ben-Haim and performed by the ARC Ensemble.

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