How Leo Strauss and a Great African American Jazz Critic Came to Parallel Conclusions about the Limits of Liberalism

September 24, 2021 | Aryeh Tepper
About the author: Aryeh Tepper teaches at Ben-Gurion University and is a senior research fellow at its Center for Israel Studies. He is also the director of publications for the American Sephardi Federation.

Like Theodor Herzl before him, the German Jewish scholar Leo Strauss formed his ideas about politics after witnessing the failure of the “liberal solution” to what in the 19th century was called “the Jewish question.” That is, granting Jews equality before the law in Germany, Austria, or France failed to eliminate anti-Semitism. Aryeh Tepper sees a similar line of reasoning vis-à-vis racism in the U.S. in the writings of Albert Murray, one of America’s foremost writers on jazz. But the parallels go deeper:

Strauss championed liberal education, whose aim he identified as “reminding oneself of human excellence, of human greatness.” Murray would have nodded in agreement. . . . Most importantly for our story, both thinkers celebrated the virtue of fortitude, or resilience. They were acutely aware of the abiding reality of bigotry—for Strauss, anti-Semitism, for Murray, racism—but it didn’t define their self-perception.

On confronting bigotry, Murray in effect picked up where Strauss left off. And in his writings on music, literature, and culture, Murray offered a sustained reflection on facing adversity in a liberal democratic context—a heroic response that implicitly extends and elaborates Herzl’s recognition that “the enemy is necessary for the highest effort of the personality.”

Murray’s fundamental approach is to cast the challenges one faces in life as opportunities for heroic action: “We’re supposed to live life as if the dragon exists in order to make heroes.” This principle remains true even if the dragon happens to be a bigot. Fighting bigots is a given (that’s how you become a hero), but protesting their existence? Murray isn’t interested: “To protest the existence of dragons (or even hooded or unhooded Grand Dragons for that matter) is . . . naïve.” Naïve, because dragons are a part of life, and protesting isn’t going to change the (Grand) Dragon’s ways.

Murray was well aware that his heroic view cut against the grain of attitudes that were beginning to penetrate the liberal mainstream. Those attitudes don’t embrace stress and strain—struggle—as the condition for self-discovery and self-realization.

Indeed, Murray criticized the approach of the “social science-oriented” thinkers who sought to rid life “of ambivalence, complexity, and strife.” Yet, also like Strauss, Murray was a critic of the liberalism of his day who never abandoned his basic faith in liberal democracy.

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