Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Lockean Natural Punishment of Dictators Through Nonviolent Resistance

I have written many posts over the years on the Darwinian science of natural punishment in Lockean liberalism (herehere, here, herehereherehereherehereherehereherehereherehereherehereherehere, here, and here.)

The natural right to punish--the "executive power of the law of nature"--can be expressed in both violent and nonviolent resistance to tyranny.  Previously (here), I have written about Erica Chenoweth's research showing that since 1900, nonviolent resistance campaigns have been more than twice as likely to succeed as violent resistance movements, and that every campaign of nonviolent protest that achieved the active and sustained participation of just 3.5 percent of the population was successful.

Now, we have new research from Chenoweth (with her coauthor Margherita Belgioioso) adding to her theory of nonviolent resistance--"The Physics of Dissent and the Effects of Movement Momentum," just published online in Nature Human Behaviour (https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-019-0665-8).

Here is her abstract: "How do 'people power' movements succeed when modest proportions of the population participate?  Here we propose that the effects of social movements increase as they gain momentum.  We approximate a simple law drawn from physics: momentum equals mass times velocity (p = mv).  We propose that the momentum of dissent is a product of participation (mass) and the number of protest events in a week (velocity).  We test this simple physical proposition against panel data on the potential effects of movement momentum on irregular leader exit in African countries between 1990 and 2014, using a variety of estimation techniques.  Our findings show that social movements potentially compensate for relatively modest popular support by concentrating their activities in time, thus increasing their disruptive capacity.  Notably, these findings also provide a straight-forward way for dissidents to easily quantify their coercive potential by assessing their participation rates and increased concentration of their activities over time."

The database for this study is the Social Conflict in Africa Database (SCAD). There are some good databases for armed conflict such as the Uppsala University Armed Conflict Dataset, which collects global data on armed conflict as including state-based, non-state, and one-sided armed conflicts. What is novel about SCAD is that it is not limited to armed conflict, but includes social conflict such as nonviolent demonstrations and protests as well as violent riots.  The researchers have identified social conflict events in Africa by conducting keyword searches of Associated Press (AP) and Agence France Presse (AFP) news wires.  They looked for five terms: "protest," "riot," "strike," "violence," and "attack."  Between 1990 and 2010, they identified 7,200 distinct social conflict events (Idean Salehyan et al., "Social Conflict in Africa: A New Database," International Interactions 38 [2012]: 503-511).  For each event, they identified the start and end dates; and they determined the particular actor(s) involved, their target(s), and the issue(s) at stake.

In compiling their own dataset, Chenoweth and Belgioioso excluded violent events such as riots and included only nonviolent methods of dissent, such as protests and strikes.  They then went to the ARCHIGOS dataset, which has information on political leaders in 188 countries from 1875 to 2015, and they identified the dependent variable by looking for cases in which the leader lost power through "irregular means," defined as leader removal "in contravention of explicit rules and established conventions."

They found that in Africa from January 1, 1990, to January 1, 2014, there were 45 cases of leaders losing power through irregular means.  They then analyzed these 45 cases to see that in 21 cases, leaders were overthrown through assassinations or coups that were part of internal political maneuvers of the ruling elites outside the contest of any popular revolts, which left 24 cases of leaders forced out of power in response to peaceful popular protests.

In none of these 24 cases did participation in popular protests exceed 13.3% of the national population.  This confirms Chenoweth's earlier conclusion that nonviolent resistance can overthrow unpopular leaders even when the active protestors are only a small minority of the population.  But the main point of this new research is that peak participation rates alone are not sufficient to explain the success of social movements.  It is only when rising participation rates are combined with mobilization at a high velocity (measured as the number of protest events in a week) that a protest movement is likely to succeed.

In those 24 cases of leaders who fell from power in response to popular protests, the primary agents forcing their exit were military people, police, or other security personnel.  When those who are armed to protect the leader defect--perhaps by refusing to obey his orders to kill the protestors--then the leader must fall because he depends on the loyalty of his "minimum winning coalition"--particularly the military.  Even the most autocratic ruler cannot rule on his own without supporters.  (I have written about this here.)

Here we see the Machiavellianism of our chimpanzee politics: like chimps, human beings show three or four distinct political "humours"--the one, the few, and the many, and perhaps the military as a fourth humour.  The ambitious few want to rule over and oppress the people.  The many do not desire to rule or oppress, but they do desire to be free from the oppression of the few.  The one--the "prince"--rules as the alpha male who depends on the support of the few or of the people.  He can rule best through fear rather than love, but he must avoid the hatred of the people, because if he is hated, either he will be assassinated, or he will be overthrown by the ambitious few who see how vulnerable he is without the people's acquiescence in his rule.  That explains why Frans de Waal could not understand what he was observing in his chimpanzee community in the Arnhem Zoo until he read Machiavelli.

I have written about this in a previous post, which is illustrated by the case of Hosni Mubarak's fall from power in Egypt in 2011.

The overthrow of Mubarak is one of the 24 cases of successful nonviolent resistance in Chenoweth's study.  As Vice President of Egypt, Mubarak became President in 1981 after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat..  Mubarak himself was the target of at least a half-dozen assassination attempts.  So he understood Machiavelli's teaching that even the most powerful prince can be brought down by any assassin willing to die in an attack.  He also understood the importance of being feared, and he held his princely power for almost 30 years through a declaration of emergency law that allowed him to arrest and terrify his political opponents without any legal procedures.

His mistake, however, during the Arab Spring movement of 2011, was in failing to see that even if the prince is feared, he must avoid the hatred and contempt of the people.  He provoked popular demonstrations of protest that made him vulnerable to those ambitious few around him who were looking for the first opportunity to take his power from him.  His dependence on the military then left him open to the military decision to force him out of office.  The leaders of the Egyptian protestors had studied the techniques of nonviolent resistance--the techniques of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and others, as presented in some books by Gene Sharp.

Mohamed Morsi was elected President of Egypt in 2012.  But then he too faced popular protests in 2013, and the military forced him out of power.

What one sees here in these cases of leaders being overthrown in Africa as analyzed by Chenoweth confirms Locke's account of how the natural desire to punish cheaters enforces government by consent of the governed, within a system of elite rule in which the people do not rule directly, but whose acquiescence to being ruled is required for elite rule.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Darwinian Liberalism Solves Strauss's Problems of Natural Right

At the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in Washington, DC, I will be presenting a paper for a panel on "Natural Right and Classical Political Philosophy, sponsored by the Claremont Institute.  The panel will meet on Friday, August 30, 8:00-9:30 am, in the Calvert Room of the Omni Shoreham Hotel.

My paper is entitled "Darwinian Liberalism Solves the Straussian Problems of Natural Right."

I argue that Darwinian liberalism can solve the four problems of natural right identified by Leo Strauss.  Darwinian liberalism defends the liberal social order as conforming to the twenty natural desires of evolved human nature.

This Darwinian liberalism solves the problem of teleology by appealing to the immanent teleology of human nature rather than the cosmic teleology of the universe.

It solves the problem of species by relying on an Aristotelian and Darwinian empiricist conception of species rather than a Platonic essentialist conception.

It solves the problem of reason and revelation by securing the freedom of thought and speech in a largely open society that allows for public debate over reason and revelation, although the debate remains irreconcilable.

Finally, it solves the problem of liberal democracy because a Darwinian aristocratic liberalism--like that defended by Friedrich Nietzsche in his middle writings--can appeal to evolved human nature as setting the standards for Darwinian natural right.

This paper is a case study in what I have called evolutionary political philosophy or biopolitical science, which employs a modern evolutionary science of human nature and human history to illuminate and even resolve some of the great debates in the history of political philosophy.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Reason, Revelation, and the Miracle of the Resurrection in the Metaphysical Society

One of the best debates over reason and revelation occurred in London in the meetings of the Metaphysical Society from 1869 to 1880.  This shows how the liberal culture of Victorian England provided the freedom of thought and speech that allowed a public discussion of the reason/revelation conflict without any need for esoteric writing or any fear of persecution.  Much of this discussion arose from the public debate over Darwinian evolution and Biblical theology.  It was this success of liberalism in establishing a largely open society that would later allow Leo Strauss in the United States to publicly discuss the reason/revelation conflict without any need for hiding his teaching in esoteric writing.

Beginning in the fall of 1868, Alfred Tennyson, the Poet Laureate of Great Britain, met with some of his friends and proposed organizing a discussion club for those who wanted to defend Christian theology against the threat of scientific naturalism.  They decided they should include those they identified as "the opposition," so they could try to persuade their opponents that Christian natural theology had not been refuted by modern natural science (Hutton 1885).  They would meet once a month at a hotel for nine months of the year.  After dining together, they would discuss a paper that one of the members had circulated beforehand.  From 1869 to 1880, 62 members produced 95 papers.  Attendance at each meeting ranged from as many as 22 members present to as few as 7.  At first, they wanted to call this the Theological Society, but then they decided to call it the Metaphysical Society.

The membership was remarkable in their prominence as representing the diverse intellectual and social elites of Great Britain--including poets such as Tennyson, philosophers such as Henry Sidgwick, scientists such as Thomas Huxley, John Tyndall, and John Lubbock, Anglican theologians like Arthur Stanley, the Dean of Westminster, Catholic theologians such as William George Ward and Henry Edward Manning, politicians such as Lubbock and Prime Minister William Gladstone, lawyers such as James Fitzjames Stephen, and journalists such as Walter Bagehot.  Huxley, Tyndall, and Lubbock were the three who were also members of the X-Club.

Their discussions were confidential, and their papers were privately printed for circulation only among the members.  But most of the papers were eventually published as articles in journals or chapters in books.  The whole set of the original papers was not published until 2015, when Oxford University Press published them in three big volumes: The Papers of the Metaphysical Society.

The conflict between reason and revelation was the most persistent theme.  And the fundamental epistemological division was between the "empiricists" arguing that human experience of the world confirmed that everything was governed by natural law with no gaps for supernatural miracles and "intuitionists" arguing that human beings had a divinely implanted religious sense for believing in a supernatural miracle-working God.  Over  the years, it became clear that neither side could persuade the other because they were locked in an irreconcilable battle between reason and revelation, which is the point later made by Strauss.

Neither side could refute the other, because the empiricists assumed but could not prove the uniformity of nature so as to exclude miracles, and the intuitionists assumed but could not prove the reality of miracles as supernatural interventions in nature.  So, for example, William George Ward presented the paper for December 10, 1872, entitled "Can Experience Prove the Uniformity of Nature?," and his answer to the question was no, because, he argued, when the scientific empiricists deny the possibility of miracles as contrary to the uniformity of nature, they simply assume the uniformity of nature without establishing it through experience, and thus it is "a purely arbitrary and ungrounded assumption" (Papers, 1:410-16).

To prove by experience the unexceptional uniformity of nature, Ward contended, the scientific naturalists would have to show that universal experience testifies to this uniformity.  They cannot do this, because Catholics will point to the human experience of miracles that have been well authenticated, and the scientific naturalists have not yet proven that all of this testimony for miracles is unreliable.  Until they prove, one by one, that miracles have not occurred, their assumption of an unexceptional uniformity of nature is begging the question at issue.

Ward recognizes that many natural scientists think that the assumption of the unexceptional uniformity of nature is the absolute requirement for inductive science, and that affirming the possibility of miracles denies this assumption and thus denies the necessary basis of science.  But he argues that this is mistaken, because the idea of miracles actually assumes that nature is usually but not unexceptionally uniform, and that is enough to support empirical science.

So, for example, if I find today by experiment that certain materials combined in certain ways are combustible, then I can expect that these same materials combined in the same way tomorrow will be combustible.  But now imagine that when I go into my laboratory tomorrow, I find a man who looks very impressive seated in my laboratory.  He tells me that he has been sent by God to give me a divinely authoritative message, and to prove that he has been sent by God, he will perform a miracle.  I know that my hand is naturally combustible, but he tells me that if I put my hand in a fire now, it will not burn.  If I do that, and it does not burn, I will conclude that he has performed a miracle that testifies to his divine authority.  And yet nothing about this miracle gives me any reason to doubt that my hand is naturally combustible.  On the contrary, it is precisely because I know my hand is naturally combustible that makes me believe that if fire does not burn my hand, that must be a miracle.

We can even imagine some extreme circumstances in which miracles could become frequent without denying the normal uniformity of natural law, Ward suggests.  If England were Catholic again, and if every Englishman, by invoking St. Thomas of Canterbury (Thomas a Becket), could put his hand in a fire without injury, this would reinforce the belief that fire naturally burns, because it would be clear that the Saint's name must be invoked to cause a miraculous suspension of this natural law.

In response to Ward, Huxley admitted that he could not prove by experience the uniformity of nature, but he said that this did not weaken his confidence in this principle as a "working hypothesis" guiding his scientific research.

After this paper by Ward, over the subsequent four years, other members wrote a series of papers on miracles.  On November 9, 1875, James Fitzjames Stephen presented "Remarks on the Proof of Miracles" (2:325-44).  Stephen was a judge as well as historian and codifier of English criminal law.  He was also a prolific journalist known for a series of articles criticizing John Stuart Mill's political theory.  For three years (1869-1872), he was in India as a legal member of the Viceroy of India's council.  He had been reared in an evangelical Anglican household, but he found that his legal training in the rules of evidence challenged his faith.  During his time in India, he studied the ancient texts of Hindu law; and he saw that these texts began with accounts of the divine creation of the world that resembled the Biblical story of creation, and that these miracles of creation gave divine sanction to the Hindu caste system of social order.  He saw that the Hindu faith in their miraculous divine code was as firm as the Jewish or Christian faith in their miraculous divine code.  Seeing such contradictions in the divine codes in the ancient history of humanity turned Stephen into a skeptic.

The source of Stephen's doubt corresponds to what Strauss said about the ancient belief that "the right way must be a divine law" from the ancestors, the authority of which becomes questionable when someone sees "a variety of divine laws or codes, each of which is the work of a divine or semidivine being."  And "what is decisive is the fact that the various codes contradict one another in what they suggest regarding the first things. . . . Thus the question arises as to which code is the right code and which account of the first things is the true account.  The right way is now no longer guaranteed by authority; it becomes a question or the object of a quest. . . . It will prove to be the quest for what is good by nature as distinguished from what is good merely by convention" (NRH, 84-86).

When he returned to England in 1872, Stephen was invited to join the Metaphysical Society, and he became one of the most active members.  In his "Remarks on the Proof of Miracles," he employed the legal standards of evidence for challenging the reliability of the testimony for miracles.  The testimony for miracles would hardly be accepted in a court of law, he argued, because it generally suffers from five weaknesses.  First, the testimony is often only an uncorroborated assertion.  Second, the event that is alleged to have occurred is highly improbable.  Third, there is often no record of what other spectators at the scene saw.  Fourth, the testimony is often hearsay--someone is reporting what he has heard and not what he has seen for himself.  Fifth, there is usually no record of a complete examination of the testimony conducted at the time of the alleged event.  For example, these weaknesses characterize the reports of miracles in the New Testament, which is a collection of texts written long after the events alleged by authors who are biased in their judgment.

Stephen concluded his paper by saying that stories about miracles are only "wild absurdities," and he offered as an example quotations from "The Institutes of Menu" that start with a divine creation story of miracles sanctioning Hindu law.  He also quoted from the introduction by the English translator of these texts saying: "The faith of a Gentoo (misguided as it is, and groundless as it may be), is equally implicit with that of a Christian, and his allegiance to his own supposed revelations of the Divine Will altogether as firm.  He, therefore, esteems the astonishing miracles attributed to a Brihma, a Raam, or a Krishen, as facts of the most indubitable authenticity."

The discussion after Stephen's presentation of his paper was so intense and so prolonged that it was decided that the meeting for February 15, 1876, should be devoted to continuing the discussion, without any new paper being presented.  These discussions of miracles were becoming acrimonious.  Arthur Russell wrote to his brother: "Our debate was brisker than usual.  Frederic Harrison declared that he considered a belief in miracles as the commencement of insanity, and His Eminence [Cardinal Manning] replied that he considered an incapacity to believe in the supernatural as a commencement of ossification of the brain."
The discussions became even more acrid after Huxley's presentation on January 11, 1876, on "The Evidence of the Miracle of the Resurrection" (2:366-72).  Here Huxley doubted the evidence for the most important miracle of Christian theology.  Speaking as a biologist testifying before a court, he applied the science of animal physiology, employing legal standards of evidence, to conclude that Jesus was probably not truly dead after his crucifixion, and therefore he was not resurrected from being dead.  He probably suffered from "somatic death" (the cessation of some of the functions of the living body) but not "molecular death" (the cessation of the organic activities of the living molecules of the body).  One can be revived from somatic death but not from molecular death.

To illustrate this, Huxley pointed to wheel animalcules (or rotifers) that are microscopic animals with tiny brains found in freshwater, which can survive dessication for long periods: they become inert, and then they resume activity when they are rehydrated.  It is dubious, however, that this is an apt illustration, because human beings cannot do anything like this.

What Huxley calls "somatic death" might correspond to what today would be called "clinical death"--brain death followed by cessation of heart and lung functions, which is followed within minutes by the death of cells and organs.  If that is so, it's hard to see how the "somatic death" of Jesus was not true death.

Since Huxley presented his paper, many medical doctors and forensic pathologists have written research reports to determine the cause of Jesus' death by crucifixion.  There have been as least ten different medical theories of the cause of death--including cardiac rupture, heart failure, asphyxia, and hypovolaemic shock (Maslen and Mitchell 2006).  One theory follows Huxley in hypothesizing that Jesus did not really die--that at the crucifixion, Jesus lost consciousness because of diminished blood supply to the brain, although the oxygen supply was above a critical level; and then when he was taken down from the cross, circulation was restored (Lloyd Davies and Lloyd Davies 1991).  What is most noteworthy in this research is the great variety of conflicting hypotheses and the failure to reach any agreement based on a reasonable assessment of the evidence.

The fundamental problem is that we don't have enough reliable evidence.  The New Testament stories are unreliable, because the books of the New Testament were written many years after the time of Jesus by people who were not eyewitnesses of the events reported, and who were writing with the bias of true believers propagating their faith.  Moreover, miracles like the resurrection of the dead to life are so improbable that we should not believe them to be true without overwhelming evidence.  That's why even those people who believe in such miracles believe that most reports of miracles are false.

But then the very fact that we can openly debate the credibility of such miracles is itself a remarkable tribute to the success of liberalism in allowing freedom of thought and speech about the reason/revelation debate.

Huxley's paper on the resurrection pushed the limits of such freedom in Victorian England.  Huxley and John Morley decided not to publish the paper in Morley's Fortnightly Review--one of the most radical journals of the time--because Morley said that such a "deadly routing of the most sacred article in theology" was for scholars to discuss, not for "the profane crowd" (Desmond 1997, 466-67).

Two years before Huxley's paper, Walter Bagehot presented a paper on "The Metaphysical Basis of Toleration," February 10, 1874 (2:116-24), which pointed to the limits of toleration.  He said that the impulse to persecute those who question popular opinion is rooted in human nature, and that this natural impulse is particularly strong in ancient societies where the political order is understood to be a "religious partnership," and early law is identified with religious ritual.  The toleration of the freedom to question religious beliefs can come only in modern societies that have entered the "age of debate," when open discussion does not destroy the social order.

The philosophical debates in the Metaphysical Society show the remarkable freedom of liberal toleration.  But one can also see the limits of that toleration in late Victorian England.  One can see that, for example, in the persecution of Charles Bradlaugh, the founding president (1866-1890) of the National Secular Society, which advocated the complete disestablishment of the Anglican Church and freedom of thought for atheists.  Bradlaugh was elected to Parliament, but he was prohibited from taking his seat because he refused to take the sacred oath of allegiance to the Crown, which required religious belief:  "I, ---- do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Victoria, her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God."  It was not until 1888 that Parliament passed the Oaths Act proposed by Bradlaugh that allowed people to choose to make a "solemn affirmation" rather than swearing an oath to God (Niblett 2010).

This continuing progress of the Liberal Enlightenment can be confirmed by various kinds of empirical historical evidence (such as the Human Freedom Index), which has been the subject of various posts hereherehere, and here.


Desmond, Adrian. 1997. Huxley: From Devil's Disciple to Evolution's High Priest. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.

Hutton, R. H.  1885. "The Metaphysical Society: A Reminiscence." The Nineteenth Century 18: 177-96.

Lloyd Davies, Margaret, and Trevor Lloyd Davies. 1991. "Resurrection or Resuscitation?" Journal of the Royal College of London. 25: 167-70.

Marshall, Catherine, Bernard Lightman, and Richard England, eds.  2015. The Papers of the Metaphysical Society, 1869-1880.  3 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Maslen, Matthew, and Piers D. Mitchell. 2006. "Medical Theories on the Cause of Death in Crucifixion." Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 99: 185-88.

Niblett, Bryan. 2010. Dare to Stand Alone: The Story of Charles Bradlaugh. Oxford, UK: Kramedart Press.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Darwinian Liberalism Promoted Freedom of Thought in the Reason/Revelation Debate in Victorian England

There is a fundamental contradiction in the Straussian account of the reason/revelation debate and the need for philosophers to be esoteric in their speaking and writing about this debate.  Leo Strauss presented the irreconcilable conflict between reason and revelation as part of the irreconcilable conflict between philosophy and politics, because the philosopher's pursuit of truth about the whole clashes with society's need for unquestioned belief in the divine law that supports the social order; and consequently philosophers must speak and write esoterically to protect themselves from persecution and to protect society from being subverted by philosophic atheism.  At the same time, however, we see that Strauss spoke and wrote openly about the conflict between reason and revelation, apparently thinking he had no need to hide this disturbing teaching from public view by engaging in esoteric speaking and writing.  Moreover, Strauss argued that since every stable society must be a closed society that prohibits public questioning of the authoritative opinions supporting the social order, modern liberalism must fail in its attempt to establish an open society with freedom of thought and speech, so that even the most authoritative opinions can be questioned in public debate.  Oddly, Strauss said this while he himself enjoyed the freedom secured by the American liberal regime that allowed him to speak and write publicly about the conflict between reason and revelation and between philosophy and politics with no fear of persecution.

This is part of the most persistent and prominent theme in Strauss's teaching--his interpretation of Plato's metaphor of human beings living in a cave.  Most human beings are chained to the floor of the cave, and they can only see shadows cast on a cave wall, which symbolizes their mental confinement to common opinions about the world that they never question.  Only a very few human beings are capable of turning around to see the fire behind them and the objects carried before the fire that create the shadows on the wall.  These few can climb out of the cave to see the Sun outside.  This symbolizes the philosophic life of those few--like Socrates--who question everything in their pursuit of knowledge--in their quest to replace mere opinions with truth known by one's own reason.  The shadows on the wall of the cave include authoritative religious beliefs that the multitude of human beings accept without any rational proof.  Only the philosophic few can doubt those religious beliefs in demanding that all beliefs about the world be subject to rational examination, and so only these few can see the conflict between reason and revelation.  These philosophic few cannot speak about this openly in public without creating scandals that would harm themselves and others.  Strauss indicated that the failure of modern liberalism comes from the liberal attempt to establish open societies through popular enlightenment so that everyone can climb out of the cave to see the Sun, or at least question the shadowy opinions on the wall of the cave.

But then Strauss contradicted this teaching in his own words and deeds by publicly explaining the reason/revelation debate and then telling his audience (in "Progress or Return?"):
". . . No one can be both a philosopher and a theologian, or, for that matter, some possibility which transcends the conflict between philosophy and theology, or pretends to be a synthesis of both.  But every one of us can be and ought to be either one or the other, the philosopher open to the challenge of theology, or the theologian open to the challenge of philosophy." (116-117)
How can "every one of us" be free to make this choice between reason and revelation, philosophy and theology?  Doesn't that assume that "we"--those in Strauss's audiences at the University of Chicago and those who have read his published writings--live in modern liberal societies like the United States where it is possible for philosophers like Strauss to speak openly to a popular audience about the reason/revelation debate?  If so, doesn't that mean that modern liberalism has succeeded in creating largely open societies with freedom of thought and speech where "every one of us" can choose between reason and revelation, and where it is no longer necessary for philosophers like Strauss to speak and write esoterically, so that this choice is hidden from public view?  Wouldn't we therefore have to say that for Strauss to escape self-contradiction, he needed to be a "Midwest Straussian" who saw that modernity is good, and the modern liberal social order is the best regime, because it gives human beings the freedom to live the best human lives, including the religious life and the philosophic life?  (I have written about "Midwest Straussianism" here and here, and about esoteric writing here and here.)

The modern liberal promotion of the debate over reason and revelation could be seen as beginning in the 17th century (as in the controversy stirred by Spinoza's writings) or in the 18th century (as in the controversy stirred by Hume's writings).  But this became a fully free and public debate for the first time in the 19th century in Victorian England, where it arose in response to the new evolutionary science of nature and the intellectual culture created by Darwinian liberalism.  It was during this time that the public culture of Great Britain moved from "confessional values" to "liberal values" (see William C. Lubenow, Liberal Intellectuals and Public Culture in Modern Britain, 1815-1914: Making Words Flesh [Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2010].)

After the publication late in 1859 of Darwin's Origin of Species, Thomas Henry Huxley wrote one of the first reviews of the book in the Westminster Review, where he said that "every philosophical thinker" would hail Darwin's book "as a veritable Whitworth gun in the armoury of liberalism."  The Whitworth rifle was considered the most accurate rifle of its time, and so Huxley saw Darwin's book as a powerful weapon in the warfare of liberalism against its opponents, in which the "philosophical thinkers" were on the side of liberalism and scientific naturalism, and the anti-philosophical thinkers were on the side of the theological dogmas of supernatural religion.  Some years later, in a letter to his wife, Huxley described this as part of a centuries-long battle between "free thought and traditional authority" (letter to Nettie Huxley, August 8, 1873).

In this battle, the liberal science of Darwin and Huxley had an alliance with liberal theology, which questioned traditional Christian doctrines and thus subordinated revelation to reason.  This was clear in the controversy over the publication in March of 1860 of a collection of seven essays--entitled Essays and Reviews--arguing that a rational study of nature and history proved that the Bible could not be literally true and could not be a miraculous revelation from God, and therefore it should be read like any other ancient book.  One author claimed that modern natural science showed that miracles were impossible because the causal uniformity of nature does not allow for supernatural interventions violating the order of nature.  The general argument of the book was that traditional Christian doctrines would have to be changed to conform to what was known by natural science.  The religious public was shocked by this, especially because most of the authors were ordained clergy of the Church of England.  Some of the bishops of the Church wanted the essayists to be charged with heresy.

John Lubbock, Huxley, and other scientists close to Darwin signed a public memorial lending scientific support to the essayists.  In persuading scientists to sign this, Lubbock insisted that in "the battle of freedom," "the great Liberal Party should stand by their guns and their friends," supporting the "liberal and thoughtful" clergy (letter to Joseph Hooker, March 2, 1861).

Against this, however, another group of scientists wanted to defend Christian orthodoxy as compatible with natural science, and they signed a "Declaration of the Students of the Natural Sciences," which affirmed that it was impossible for the Word of God as written in the book of nature to contradict the Word of God as written in the Bible.  Therefore, they argued, scientists should "rest in faith" that any apparent conflicts between natural science and the Bible would eventually be reconciled to confirm the truth of Scripture (Brock and MacLeod 1976).  Darwin and his friends saw that this attempt at a synthesis of reason and revelation would actually require the subordination of reason to revelation, just as Strauss would later argue.

Many of the leading defenders of Darwinian liberal science against traditional orthodox theology were informally organized as overlapping networks of friends.  On November 3, 1864, nine of these friends decided to form a dining club--the X Club--that would meet in London for dinner and discussion on the first Thursday of each month from October to June.  After their dinner, they would attend the regular meetings of the Royal Society of London.  Their meetings continued into the mid-1880s.  The nine members were George Busk (1807-1886), Joseph Hooker (1817-1911), Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), John Tyndall (1822-1893), Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), William Spottiswoode (1825-1883), Edward Frankland (1825-1899), Thomas Hirst (1830-1892), and John Lubbock (1834-1913).  Although Darwin was not a member, because he preferred a reclusive life at his house in Down, much of the work of the X Club was devoted to defending Darwin's science and advancing the cause of Darwinian scientific naturalism against traditional theology.  Members of the X Club were responsible for persuading the Royal Society to award Darwin the Copley Medal, the highest honor they bestowed.  They were also responsible for having Darwin buried in Westminster Cathedral.  Even more importantly, they took control of the leading scientific organizations, such as the Royal Society and the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and many of the leading journals.  Perhaps the most important lesson from the history of the X Club is the importance of philosophic friendships in forming social groups in liberal societies for the advancement of the philosophic life.  (The best history of the X Club was published last year--Ruth Barton, The X Club: Power and Authority in Victorian Science.)

At the first meeting of the X Club, Hirst took notes and reported: "Besides personal friendship, the bond that united us was devotion to science, pure and free, untrammeled by religious dogmas.  Amongst ourselves there is perfect outspokenness, and no doubt opportunities will arise where concerted action on our part may be of service.  The first meeting was very pleasant and 'jolly'" (Barton, 13).  So they were committed to "science, pure and free."  By "pure science," they meant a science of relentless inquiry into nature for its own sake--for the Socratic pleasure of living a philosophic life--without regard for any practical utility, money making, or technological advancement.  This counters Strauss's claim that modern scientific philosophy denigrated the contemplative life of philosophy in favor of Francis Bacon's project for an effective knowledge directed to the mastery of nature for the relief of the human estate.  Actually, Huxley criticized Bacon for attaching "an undue value to the practical advantages which he foresaw"--in pleading for science as the "gathering of fruit."  Huxley thought this ignored the fact that the great steps in the progress of knowledge "have been made, are made, and will be made, by men who seek knowledge simply because they crave for it" ("The Progress of Science," 47, 56).

In their commitment to a "free science" that is "untrammeled by religious dogma," the X Club members took the side of reason and natural philosophy against revelation and theological doctrine.  As Strauss indicated, philosophers have made this choice for thousands of years, but they have hidden their argument for reason over revelation from public view by conveying it to only a few philosophic readers through esoteric writing.  What was new about the position of the Darwinian liberal scientists is that they defended their choice of reason over revelation openly in public debate before large audiences that included the great multitude of people in their society.

For example, the X Club members were active in the Sunday lecture societies, which was an anti-Sabbatarian movement that sponsored lectures at "Sunday Evenings for the People," as an alternative to attending church on Sundays and hearing sermons, and thus a challenge to Sabbatarian legislation that restricted secular activities on Sundays.  These lectures were attended by people of all classes, including workingmen and many women.

The first Sunday lecture in this series early in 1866 was Huxley's "On the Desirableness of Improving Natural Knowledge."  Thousands of people filled the lecture hall to capacity, and thousands more were turned away.  Newspapers published reports about the lecture.  A week later, the lecture was published as an article in the Fortnightly Review, and later it was published as a chapter in Huxley's Essays.  This was the common way to reach a large audience--lecturing and then publishing the lecture as an article in a journal and finally in a book.  Here we see one of the crucial elements of the Liberal Enlightenment: rising literacy and printing technology allowed for the general spread of knowledge through reading.  In Great Britain in 1600, only about 20% of the people were literate; by 1860, over 80% were literate.  And with improvements in printing techniques, newspapers, journals, and books were cheap enough to be purchased even by common working people.  (See James A. Secord, Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of "Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation" [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000].)

In his lecture, Huxley traced the modern movement for improving knowledge of nature to the founding of the "Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge," which began in 1660 with a royal charter from Charles II, and which became the oldest national scientific institution in the world.  And yet, Huxley observed, the true origin of the pursuit of natural knowledge is in the ancient history of humanity, at that point at which human reason first discovered nature:
"I cannot but think that the foundations of all natural knowledge were laid when the reason of man first came face to face with the facts of Nature; when the savage first learned that the fingers of one hand are fewer than those of both; that it is shorter to cross a stream than to head it; that a stone stops where it is unless it be moved, and that it drops from the hand which lets it go; that light and heat come and go with the sun; that sticks burn away in a fire; that plants and animals grow and die; that if he struck his fellow savage a blow he would make him angry, and perhaps get a blow in return, while if he offered him a fruit he would please him, and perhaps receive a fish in exchange.  When men had acquired this much knowledge, the outlines, rude though they were, of mathematics, of physics, of chemistry, of biology, of moral, economical, and political science, were sketched.  Nor did the germ of religion fail when science began to bud. . . . the little light of awakened human intelligence shines so mere a spark amidst the abyss of the unknown and unknowable seems so insufficient to do more than illuminate the imperfections that cannot be remedied, the aspirations that cannot be realized, of man's own nature.  But in this sadness, this consciousness of the limitation of man, this sense of an open secret which he cannot penetrate, lies the essence of all religion; and the attempt to embody it in the forms furnished by the intellect is the origin of the higher theologies" (32-33).
Strauss thought that nature was discovered about 2,600 years ago by some Greek philosopher.  But Huxley thought that the philosophic concept of nature had already been implicit inchoately in the mental experience of primitive human beings who saw regular patterns in the physical and living world around them.  The natural knowledge gained by philosophic science is the systematic and rigorous working out of human common sense experience of the natural world.

This natural knowledge includes the moral and political knowledge of human nature that Strauss called natural right.  Primitive human beings discovered that there was a natural punishment for attacking or threatening other human beings, because they had a natural propensity to punish those who injured them: "if he struck his fellow savage a blow he would make him angry, and perhaps get a blow in return."  This is what John Locke called "the executive power of the law of nature"--the natural inclination of every individual to punish those who harm him.  Primitive human beings also discovered the natural gains from cooperative trade: "if he offered him a fruit, he would please him, and perhaps receive a fish in exchange."  Here is the ground for Darwinian natural right in the natural punishment of injustice and the natural benefits of cooperative exchange.

As Strauss said, the philosopher seeks a natural knowledge of the whole, but that can never be fully attained because human knowledge will always be limited, and consequently the whole will always be mysterious, which leaves an opening for the possibility of revelation from a mysterious God.  Huxley agreed: the sense of "the abyss of the unknown and unknowable" is "the essence of all religion."  He also claimed that a scientific theology could be based on "the noblest and most human of man's emotions, . . . worship . . . at the altar of the Unknown" (38).  But notice that this "Unknown" has none of the features of the personal, providential, and miracle-working God of the Bible.

Despite the fact that natural knowledge is always incomplete--and thus a Socratic knowledge of ignorance--those human beings who are most moved by the natural desire for intellectual understanding will devote their lives to improving their natural knowledge.  To live such a philosophic life, Huxley observed in his lecture, philosophers must overcome two obstacles.

The first obstacle is the moral conviction common among human beings that authority must be obeyed--"that authority is the soundest basis of belief; that merit attaches to a readiness to believe; that the doubting disposition is a bad one, and skepticism a sin; that when good authority has pronounced what is to be believed, and faith accepted it, reason has no further duty."  Against this, Huxley argued: "The improver of natural knowledge absolutely refuses to acknowledge authority as such.  For him, skepticism is the highest of duties; blind faith the one unpardonable sin. . . . The man of science has learned to believe in justification, not by faith, but by verification" (40-41).  Strauss expressed this same thought by saying that philosophy rejects the authority of the ancestral and recognizes that "nature is the authority" (NRH, 92).

The second obstacle to improving natural knowledge is the natural tendency of human beings to anthropomorphic projection of their own mental experience onto the universe, so that they imagine that the whole world is ruled by a divine Mind or an Intelligent Designer that demands love and obedience.  This is the idea developed by Darwin and some recent evolutionary psychologists for explaining religious belief through an evolved "hyperactive agency-detection device," which has been the subject for some posts herehere, and here.

In his lecture, Huxley explained:
"But, with respect to all the less familiar occurrences which present themselves, uncultured man, no doubt, has always taken himself as the standard of comparison, as the eentre and measure of the world; nor could we well avoid doing so.  And finding that his apparently uncaused will has a powerful effect in giving rise to many occurrences, he naturally enough ascribed other and greater events to other and greater volitions, and came to look upon the world and all that therein is, as the product of the volitions of persons like himself, but stronger, and capable of being appeased or angered, as he himself might be soothed or irritated" (34).
This is an obstacle to improving natural knowledge because believing that the universe is governed by a divine Mind discourages us from rationally looking for the natural causes of cosmic order.  As natural philosophy increases our knowledge of those natural causes, Huxley suggested, we see that this is a better explanation of cosmic order than an anthropomorphic projection of mind onto the whole.

Strauss argued that the anthropomorphic analogy for explaining cosmic order as ruled by Mind is fallacious because it fails to distinguish that which is man-made and that which is not.  We have natural experience with how human beings make or design things with their minds, but we have no natural experience with how divine minds make or design things.  So there's a fallacy of equivocation in reasoning from human intelligent design to divine intelligent design.

But, still, Strauss argued, reason cannot demonstratively refute revelation, because reason cannot prove that it is impossible for any human being to have an experience of revelation from God.  Any supposed proof would have to beg the question at issue by assuming that nature is uniform, that there are no supernatural interventions in nature, and so miracles are impossible.

This irreconcilable debate over reason and revelation was carried on by the Darwinian liberals and their theological opponents in a remarkable series of discussions in The Metaphysical Society, which will be the topic for my next post.


Barton, Ruth. 2018. The X Club: Power and Authority in Victorian Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Brock, W. H., and R. M. MacLeod.  1976. "The Scientists' Declaration: Reflections on Science and Belief in the Wake of Essays and Reviews, 1864-65." The British Journal for the History of Science 9: 39-66.

Huxley, Thomas Henry. 1896. Method and Results: Essays. New York: D. Appleton.

Strauss, Leo.  1997. "Progress or Return?" In Kenneth H. Green, ed., Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity. Albany: SUNY Press.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Darwin's Philosophic Understanding of Reason and Revelation

Charles Darwin was a scientific philosopher who took the side of reason against revelation, but with the understanding that he could not refute the possibility of revelation; and therefore he saw the irreconcilable tension between philosophy and the Bible that constitutes the vitality of Western civilization.  In this way, he took the position on the reason/revelation debate that has been adopted by the zetetic Socratic Straussians.  I have defended this interpretation of Darwin in some previous posts hereherehereherehereherehere, and here.  In this post, I will restate and elaborate some of my reasoning.

I call Darwin a "scientific philosopher" to indicate that he did not see a separation of science from philosophy.  In "Reason and Revelation," Leo Strauss observed that the distinction between science and philosophy did not arise until late in the 18th century, a distinction that created an opposition between "unscientific philosophy" and "unphilosophic science."  As a consequence of this, "there exists no longer a direct access to philosophy in its original meaning as quest for the true and final account of the whole" (144).

During his lifetime, Darwin was generally identified as both a "man of science" and a philosopher.  On board the Beagle, the seamen referred to Darwin as "the philosopher."  In his early notebooks, where he began to work out his theory of evolution, he had notes on his reading of many philosophers--such as Immanuel Kant, David Hume, and Adam Smith--particularly for his studies of the natural "moral sense," which later was written out in his Descent of Man.  After his death in 1882, William Spottiswoode, the President of the Royal Society of London, remembered Darwin as showing the "ideal of the philosophic life."  In his obituary for Nature, Thomas Huxley observed: "One could not converse with Darwin without being reminded of Socrates.  There was the same desire to find some one wiser than himself, the same belief in the sovereignty of reason." Huxley concluded by quoting the last line of the Apology: "The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways--I to die and you to live.  Which is the better, God only knows."  Even the iconic photographs of Darwin's head evoked the resemblance to Socrates.

Darwin's study of nature conformed to what Strauss called the "original meaning of philosophy" as based on the discovery of nature:
". . . Nature was discovered when the quest for the beginnings became guided by these two fundamental distinctions:
"a) the distinction between hearsay and seeing with one's own eyes--the beginnings of all things must be made manifest, or demonstrated, on the basis of what men can see always in broad daylight or through ascent from the visible things.
"b) the distinction between man-made things and things that are not man-made--the beginning of artificial things is man, but man is clearly not the first thing, the beginning of all things.  hence those things that are not man-made, lead more directly to the first things than do the artificial things.  The production of artefacts is due to contrivance, to forethought.  Nature was discovered when the possibility was realized that the first things may produce all other things, not by means of forethought, but by blind necessity. I say: the possibility.  It was not excluded that the origin of all things is forethought, divine forethought.  But this assertion required from now on a demonstration.  The characteristic outcome of the discovery of nature is the demand for rigorous demonstration of the existence of divine beings, for a demonstration which starts from the analysis of phenomena manifest to everyone.  Since no demonstration can presuppose the demonstrandum, philosophy is radically atheistic."  ("Reason and Revelation," 145-46; compare "Progress or Return?", 113-14, and Natural Right and History, 81-89)
Darwin described his scientific research during the five years of the voyage of the Beagle around the world as based on what he could see with his own eyes:
"During some part of the day I wrote my Journal, and took much pains in describing carefully and vividly all that I had seen; and this was good practice. . . ."
". . . Everything about which I thought or read was made to bear directly on what I had seen and was likely to see; and this habit of mind was continued during the years of the voyage.  I fee sure that it was this training which has enabled me to do whatever I have done in science." (Autobiography, 78).
He then began The Origin of Species in 1859 by claiming that his careful collection of and reflections on "certain facts in the distribution of the organic beings" could "throw some light on the origin of species--that mystery of mysteries."

Early in his life, Darwin felt compelled to believe that the origin of nature was "by means of forethought"--the work of a Divine Mind or intelligent designer, and thus he was a theist.  But gradually he began to doubt the anthropomorphic analogy--the idea that the First Cause must be a Mind--and he saw that all of nature could have arisen by natural necessity.  By the end of his life, he was a skeptical zetetic, who thought that while the human mind was unable to explain the mystery of the whole, there was no good reason to believe in Biblical Revelation; and the life of scientific inquiry into nature by reason alone was the best life for him.  Darwin did not reveal his skeptical doubt about the divine in the writings published in his lifetime.  But he did reveal this clearly in some of his correspondence that was marked "private" and in his Autobiography that he wrote for publication after his death.

In the section on "Religious Belief" in his Autobiography, Darwin related the evolution of his religious thought through four phases: New Testament Christianity, theism, agnosticism, and skepticism or rationalism. Darwin said that when he was on board the Beagle, he was "quite orthodox" in accepting the moral authority of the New Testament, although he had rejected the Old Testament because of its "manifestly false history of the world" (85).  But then he decided that there was not enough evidence for the Christian miracles, and that "the more we know of the fixed laws of nature the more incredible do miracles become" (86).  He thus agreed with Strauss, who said that miracles must be incredible to the philosopher, even if he cannot prove them impossible: "all scientific accounts presuppose the impossibility of miracles" ("Reason and Revelation," 155).

By the time that he wrote The Origin of Species, Darwin reported, he had moved to being a theistic evolutionist who believed that the First Cause of all things was a Divine Mind:
"Another source of conviction in the existence of God, connected with the reason and not with the feelings, impresses me as having much more weight.  This follows from the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity of looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity.  When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist" (92-93).
This led him to employ the Thomistic idea of "dual causality"--God acted as the intelligent designer through "primary causes' to create the laws of nature at the beginning, but then those laws of nature worked through "secondary causes" that were open to scientific study.  This was the famous "two books" analogy: the Bible as the Book of God's Word and Nature as the Book of God's Works.

But then Darwin saw that this anthropomorphic analogy--that there was a divine intelligent designer analogous to human intelligent designers--was fallacious, because while we have experiential knowledge of how human intelligent designers create artifacts, we have no experience with how a divine intelligent designer could create everything out of nothing.  Moreover, once we see how the law of natural selection can explain the natural evolution of species, we have no need to posit a divinely intelligent First Cause, which cannot be rationally demonstrated to exist.
"The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered.  We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man.  There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows.  Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws" (87)
Darwin thus agreed with Strauss: "the notion of inquiry presupposes the realization of the fundamental difference between human production and the production of things which are not manmade, so that no conclusion from human production to the production of non-manmade things is possible except if it is first established by demonstration that the visible universe has been made by thinking beings" ("Progress or Return?", 113).  Here Darwin and Strauss have identified the fundamental flaw of "intelligent design theory" in the fallacy of reasoning through an anthropomorphic analogy, which is the subject of a previous post here.

Darwin had to admit, however, that his philosophical science of natural evolution could not provide complete knowledge of the whole, because it could not explain the origin of the universe or the origin of life.  "The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic" (Autobiography, 94).

Darwin thus agreed with Strauss that while scientific philosophy strives for knowledge of the whole, this is forever unattainable.  "Human wisdom is knowledge of ignorance: there is no knowledge of the whole but only knowledge of parts, hence only partial knowledge of parts, hence no unqualified transcending, even by the wisest man as such, of the sphere of opinion" (The City and Man, 20).

This Socratic knowledge of his ignorance put Darwin into a state of "skepticism or rationalism," in which he could neither accept nor refute revelation, and thus the conflict of reason and revelation was irreconcilable, with neither being able to rationally refute the other.  Darwin admitted that he could not demonstrate the impossibility of some people having some direct experience of God by revelation.  He observed: "My father used to quote an unanswerable argument, by which an old lady, a Mrs. Barlow, who suspected him of unorthodoxy, hoped to convert him: 'Doctor, I know that sugar is sweet in my mouth, and I know that my Redeemer liveth.'" (Autobiography, 96)

And yet this "unanswerable argument" did not convince Darwin to choose revelation over reason.  "As for myself I believe that I have acted rightly in steadily following and devoting my life to science.  I feel no remorse from having committed any great sin" (95).

This "unanswerable argument" seems to be what Strauss identified as "the fact of revelation as known through faith," which the unbeliever cannot know, because he has not had "the experience of faith" ("Reason and Revelation," 142).   The debate between reason and revelation remains unreconcilable, and the question is settled for the believer by "the fact of revelation," while it is settled for the Socratic philosopher by "the fact that he is a philosopher" ("Progress or Return?", 122).

For thousands of years, this conflict between reason and revelation could not be publicly debated, because the philosophic proponents of reason would have been persecuted; and so the philosophers could speak about the conflict only through esoteric writing.  In reading Alfarabi and Maimonides, Strauss learned about both the reason/revelation conflict and esoteric writing.  But then, remarkably, Strauss himself wrote openly about reason and revelation without facing persecution, because he lived in a modern liberal order with freedom of thought and speech.  This achievement of liberalism began during Darwin's lifetime, when for the first time, a Darwinian liberalism made it possible to openly confront the tension between reason and revelation.  That will be the theme for my next post.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Strauss and Darwin as Zetetics in the Reason/Revelation Debate

In deciding how to find their bearings in the universe and how best to live their lives, Leo Strauss said, human beings face a fundamental choice: should they live in pious obedience to God whom they fear and love, or should they live under the guidance of their own minds as based on their human understanding of the world--"a life of obedient love versus a life of free insight" (1953, 74)?

In answering this question, they must choose between the two roots of Western civilization--reason and revelation, Athens and Jerusalem, Greek philosophy and the Bible.  Strauss thought that the vitality of Western civilization arose from the tension between these two peaks of human existence.  Over the past few centuries, this debate has been between science and religion, and particularly Darwinian evolution and the Biblical creation story (Strauss 2006, 144, 155, 160-61, 171, 173, 177).  Strauss's account of this debate is best stated in his "Reason and Revelation," a lecture delivered in 1948 at Hartford Theological Seminary (Strauss 2006), in "Progress or Return?," a series of lectures at Hillel House at the University of Chicago in 1952 (Strauss 1997), and in some parts of Natural Right and History (74-77).

In the history of the West, there had been attempts to resolve this tension either by synthesizing philosophy and theology in a unified vision or by showing that one side could refute the other.  But Strauss thought no such resolution of the tension was possible, because any supposed synthesis would require one side to be subordinated to the other, and because neither could truly refute the other without begging the question at issue.

The failure of philosophy to refute revelation creates a special problem for philosophy, Strauss believed.  If the philosophic life is to be rationally defensible, the philosopher must refute the claim that divine revelation shows that a life of obedience to God's law is superior to a life of rational inquiry into all things.  If philosophy cannot refute revelation, then the choice of the philosophic life would seem to be an arbitrary choice unsupported by reason; and yet Strauss wanted to claim that the life of philosophy is in fact rationally defensible.  By contrast, the life devoted to revelation does not face this kind of problem.  Since submission to revelation is based on faith rather than reason, the failure of revelation to refute philosophy through rational argument does not render the life of faith incoherent.

This is what Strauss called "the theological-political problem," which he identified as "the theme of my studies" (Strauss 1997, 453).  Strauss learned about this problem primarily from his reading of the medieval Jewish and Muslim philosophers--particularly, Maimonides and Alfarabi--who saw the conflict between Greek philosophy and the Bible or the Koran.  Although Strauss tried to claim that the reason-revelation debate can be seen in Greek philosophy and the Bible, he admitted that, of course, the Greek philosophers did not know the Bible, and the Biblical authors did not know Greek philosophy.  It is not clear, therefore, that the conflict between ancient Greek philosophy and religious myth is the same as the conflict between Greek philosophy and Biblical revelation in the Middle Ages.  After all, the Bible agrees with Greek philosophy in criticizing polytheistic religious myth.

According to Michael and Catherine Zuckert, in Leo Strauss and the Problem of Political Philosophy, the best way to see the theological-political problem is to state Strauss's position as a "paradoxical syllogism":
"PROPOSITION 1:  In order to be a rationally defensible pursuit, philosophy must be able to refute revelation in a non-question-begging way."
"PROPOSITION 2:  Philosophy cannot refute revelation."
"PROPOSITION 3:  Philosophy is a rationally defensible pursuit." (314)
To resolve the problem in holding these three propositions, the Straussians have said that Strauss actually denied one of these three propositions; but they disagree about which one of the propositions needs to be denied. The Zuckerts lay out four alternative interpretations, and they imply that the most persuasive interpretation is that of the "zetetics, who argue that Strauss persisted in his view that the possibility of revelation could not be refuted by philosophy but who also maintain that Strauss had worked out a way to rationally justify the choice of the philosophic life without that refutation" (315), thus rejecting Proposition 1.  (The term zetetic is derived from the Greek verb zeteo--to seek or inquire--so a zetetic philosopher is one who seeks the truth or inquires about things without ever attaining full knowledge or wisdom.)

As my response to this, I will make three claims.  First, the Zuckerts are correct in identifying Strauss as a zetetic--as someone devoted to Socratic inquiry into the nature of the whole without expecting to achieve full knowledge of the whole--who makes a rational choice for philosophy over revelation but without ever refuting revelation.  Second, Charles Darwin was a zetetic scientific philosopher in choosing evolutionary science over Biblical creationism.  Third, the Darwinian liberalism that emerged during Darwin's lifetime promoted the public debate over reason and revelation that was revived by Strauss, which shows how the liberal social order secures the freedom of thought that fosters the philosophic life.

In this post, I will explain the first claim.  In the next two posts, I will explain the second and third claims.

The Zuckerts rightly see four alternative positions among the Straussians interpreting Strauss's account of the reason/revelation debate.  The rationalists believe that philosophy really can refute revelation, and thus they deny Proposition 2--that philosophy cannot refute revelation.  The decisionists believe that philosophy cannot be rationally defended, that Strauss only arbitrarily decided in favor of philosophy, and so they deny Proposition 3--that philosophy is a rationally defensible pursuit.  The faith-based Straussians believe that Strauss points to the superiority of revelation over reason, and so they also deny Proposition 3, while claiming that any denial of this proposition must favor the choice for a life of faith in revelation.  The zetetics believe that while philosophy cannot refute revelation--thus denying Proposition 1--it is rational for those with the natural desire and capacity for philosophy to choose the philosophic life, when this is rightly understood as a Socratic quest for knowledge that never attains the full knowledge of the whole that would refute revelation.

The most prominent of the Straussian rationalists are Heinrich Meier (1997) and Thomas Pangle (2003).  They show how philosophers can give rational explanations for how religious belief in an omnipotent, omniscient, and providential God arose among human beings to support human morality and politics; and they believe that such a rationalist explanation of religion makes it unnecessary to believe in divine revelation, which is the refutation of revelation.  But they fail to answer Strauss's argument that every rationalist explanation of the genealogy of religious belief begs the question at issue, because it assumes the validity of rationalist explanations, and it fails to prove that miracles, including the miracle of a revelatory experience of God, are impossible.  To prove the impossibility of miracles, one would have to have complete rational knowledge of the whole--of everything in the universe--so that there is no place for a mysterious miracle-working God.  Since we do not have--and never will have--such absolute knowledge of the whole, we cannot prove that the experience of revelation is impossible.  We cannot prove that it is impossible that the origin of the universe, the origin of life, and the origin of human life came as the miraculous work of the Creator.  To say that miracles are impossible because they are contrary to the rational laws of nature assumes what needs to be proven--that it is impossible that the laws of nature are legislated by a divine lawgiver who can miraculously set aside those laws by his omnipotent will, and that this God can reveal Himself miraculously to those who have faith in Him.

The Straussian decisionists include Stanley Rosen (2000) and Laurence Lampert (1996).  They say that Strauss did not truly believe that philosophy is a rationally defensible pursuit (Proposition 3), because while he did say this, this was only his exoteric or public teaching, and his esoteric or secret teaching for his careful readers was that the choice for philosophy is an arbitrary or ungrounded act of will.  For Lampert, this means that Strauss was a Nietzschean who saw the philosophic life as devoted not to the discovery of truth but to the creation of truth by willful invention of the will to power.  And yet, as the Zuckerts indicate, Lampert's Strauss is a "timid Nietzschean," because unlike Nietzsche, Strauss did not openly legislate values.  In public, Strauss claimed that philosophers discover truth rather than create it, and thus Strauss was afraid to "shed his Clark Kent everydayness to step forth as the Superman he could be" (322).

Rosen's interpretation of Strauss on philosophy is even more radical than Lampert's.  For Rosen, when Strauss says that the philosophic life is possible, and even the best possible life, his secret teaching is that this is a "noble lie":
"There is good reason to infer from Strauss's texts that the truly secret teaching is the impossibility of philosophy, an impossibility that must be concealed from the human race for its own salvation.  That is to say, philosophy, understood as the quest for universal knowledge, for the replacement of opinions by knowledge, for knowledge of the whole, is impossible.  We are left with knowledge of ignorance.  No wonder that philosophy, as Strauss conceives it, is incapable of refuting revelation.  One could almost be persuaded to entertain the hypothesis that the main difference between Strauss and Wittgenstein is exoteric.  That is, Strauss believes that philosophy is a noble lie, whereas Wittgenstein regards it as neither noble nor base but harmful" (2000, 564).
Rosen offers this as "speculation" and a "conjecture" that is not explicitly stated in Strauss's texts, although Rosen thinks there is good reason to infer it from Strauss's texts.  But as the Zuckerts rightly observe, Rosen's interpretation of Strauss here is dubious, because it asserts that the most prominent theme in all of Strauss's writing--the goodness of the philosophic life--is only an intentional lie.

The faith-based Straussians don't deny Strauss's affirmation of philosophy, but they do interpret his account of the reason/revelation debate as stressing the limits of philosophy in ways that favor revelation as equal or even superior to philosophy.  The Zuckerts divide them into two groups.  One group includes two "West Coast Straussians"--Harry Jaffa (2012) and Susan Orr (1995).  (In a previous post here, I have written about the Zuckerts' mapping of Straussian geography--East-Coast, West-Coast, and Midwest Straussians.)  The second group consists of two people who are friendly critics of Strauss--Ralph Hancock (2007) and Peter Lawler (2007).

I have a special interest in Jaffa's reading of Strauss on reason and revelation, because his best statement was originally written in response to a letter that I and Rick Sorenson wrote to him in 1987.  Jaffa responded to us by saying that the unique teaching of the Bible is "the idea of the One God who is separate from the universe, of which He is the Creator," and "as both separate and unique, God is unknowable" (2012, 150).  Because He cannot be known by unassisted human reason, God can be known only by faith in revelation, and revelation is marked by miracles--with Creation itself being the primary miracle--that cannot be understood by reason, although reason cannot deny the possibility of miracles.

While Strauss saw this as setting up a sharp dichotomy between reason and faith, Jaffa claimed, there could be a synthesis of the two based on at least five points of common ground.  First, Socratic political philosophy and the Bible can agree that human beings are fundamentally ignorant of the whole, so that even Socrates had only knowledge of his ignorance; and complete knowledge of the whole must be forever unattainable (152, 155).  Second, because of this ignorance, both belief in philosophy and belief in the God of the Bible depend on acts of faith (153).  Third, reason and revelation need not be seen as contradictory if one sees that both reason and revelation are given to human beings by their Creator (153-54).  Fourth, philosophy and the Bible can agree on the authority of the moral order as based on the rule of reason over the passions (158-59).  Fifth, the political establishment of Christianity in fifth-century Rome was inconsistent with both reason and revelation, because the vitality of Western civilization as driven by the tension between reason and revelation required human freedom of thought in the reason/revelation debate to avoid both "theological despotism" (as in the medieval theocratic orders) or "ideological despotism" (as in the modern rule of a Hitler or a Stalin) (159-60).

Here Jaffa seemed to defend a Thomistic synthesis of reason and revelation, which departed from the argument of Jaffa's first book--Thomism and Aristotelianism--which stressed the conflict between Aristotelian rationalism and Thomistic faith.  At other times, oddly enough, in some lectures that were never published, Jaffa suggested that Thomas Aquinas's esoteric teaching was the superiority of the philosophic life over the life of Christian faith.  Thomas West has elaborated the reasoning for this position, and I have written about West's argument here.

Susan Orr's Jerusalem and Athens can be seen as statement of Jaffa's synthesis interpretation of Strauss as suggesting that he is neutral between reason and revelation or perhaps even tilting the scales towards revelation.  By contrast, Hancock and Lawler are Christian believers who think Strauss went too far to the side of reason in claiming that the philosophic life could fulfill the human erotic striving for transcendence without faithful submission to revelation: a life of philosophic inquiry without Christian faith in revelation cannot satisfy the deepest human longings for eternal redemption from the incompleteness of earthy life.

If this is true, then Pascal must have been correct in asserting the misery of man without God, because human beings have a yearning for God that cannot be satisfied by philosophy or any other human pursuit without faith.  But I think the Zuckerts are right in pointing out that Strauss is clear in rejecting this assertion as refuted by the fact that "the philosopher, as exemplified by Socrates in particular, lives on the islands of the blessed" (Strauss 2006, 161).  Pascal might answer by saying that Socrates did not have the Christian experience of faith-based happiness.  But, Strauss says, Plato could answer by saying that Pascal did not have the Socratic experience of philosophic happiness.

This appeal to the facts of the human experience of happiness is the crucial point for those the Zuckerts identify as zetetic or Socratic Straussians, who deny Proposition 1 of the paradoxical syllogism--the claim that philosophy cannot be a rationally defensible pursuit if it cannot refute revelation.  The Zuckerts point out that when Strauss seems to affirm this proposition, he is usually speaking of this as a "present day argument," thus suggesting that this is a modern philosophic position of Spinoza and others, but not the position of the ancient Socratic philosophers (Strauss 1997, 123).

In "Progress or Return?," Strauss wrote:
". . . The philosopher, when confronted with revelation, seems to be compelled to contradict the very idea of philosophy by rejecting without sufficient grounds.  How can we understand that?  The philosophic reply can be stated as follows: the question of utmost urgency, the question which does not permit suspense, is the question of how one should live.  Now this question is settled for Socrates by the fact that he is a philosopher.;  As a philosopher, he knows that we are ignorant of the most important things.  The ignorance, the evident fact of his ignorance, evidently proves that quest for knowledge of the most important things is the most important thing for us.  Philosophy is, then, evidently the right way of life.  This, in addition, according to him, is confirmed by the fact that he finds his happiness in acquiring the highest possible degree of clarity which he can acquire.  He sees no necessity whatever to assent to something which is not evident to him.  And if he is told that his disobedience to revelation might be fatal, he raises the question: what does fatal mean?  In the extreme case, it would be eternal damnation.  Now, the philosophers of the past were absolutely certain that an all-wise God would not punish with eternal damnation, or with anything else, such human beings as are seeking the truth or clarity.  We must consider later on whether this reply is quite sufficient.  At any rate, philosophy is meant--and that is the decisive point--not as a set of propositions, a teaching, or even a system, but as a way of life, a life animated by a peculiar passion, the philosophic desire or eros. . . ." (1997, 122)
So in choosing reason over revelation, the philosopher seems to contradict the very idea of philosophy by rejecting revelation without a rational refutation of revelation.  But the Socratic philosopher's choice of philosophy as the best way of life for him is warranted by three facts--the fact that he is a philosopher, the fact that his ignorance makes it necessary for him to seek knowledge, and the fact that he finds his happiness in a life of philosophic inquiry.  This makes a man like Socrates happy because he is driven by a "peculiar passion, the philosophic desire or eros."  This leaves open the possibility that other human beings who do not have this philosophic desire, or who do not feel it as intensely as Socrates, might have such a deep desire for religious understanding that their happiness comes not from philosophy but from faith.  A Socratic philosopher cannot refute revelation, because he cannot prove the impossibility that some human beings have had an experience of God through revelation in which they find their happiness by satisfying their natural desire for religious understanding.  But even without a philosophic refutation of revelation, the Socratic philosopher's experience of happiness in a life of philosophizing is evident.

This zetetic understanding of philosophy and of the philosopher's choice for reason over revelation seems to be Strauss's understanding.  As I will indicate in the next post, Charles Darwin arrived at a similar understanding of his life devoted to scientific philosophizing, which was part of the intense debate over reason and revelation that arose publicly during his lifetime.


Hancock, Ralph. 2007. "What Was Political Philosophy? Or: The Straussian Philosopher and His Other, Political Science Reviewer 36.

Jaffa, Harry. 1952. Thomism and Aristotelianism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jaffa, Harry. 2012. "Leo Strauss, the Bible, and Political Philosophy," in Crisis of the Strauss Divided. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Lampert, Laurence. 1996. Leo Strauss and Nietzsche. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lawler, Peter. 2007. "Strauss, Straussians, and Faith-Based Students of Strauss," Political Science Reviewer 36.

Meier, Heinrich. 2006. Leo Strauss and the Theological-Political Problem. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Orr, Susan. 1995. Jerusalem and Athens: Reason and Revelation in the Works of Leo Strauss. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Pangle, Thomas. Political Philosophy and the God of Abraham. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Rosen, Stanley. 2000. "Leo Strauss and the Possibility of Philosophy," The Review of Metaphysics 53: 541-564.

Strauss, Leo. 1953. Natural Right and History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Strauss, Leo. 1997.  "Progress or Return?" In Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity: Essays and Lectures in Modern Jewish Thought, ed. Kenneth Hart Green. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Strauss, Leo. 2006. "Reason and Revelation." In Meier 2006.

Zuckert, Michael, and Catherine Zuckert. 2014. Leo Strauss and the Problem of Political Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Leo Strauss Endorsed "Might Makes Right" in World War Two

Over the years, I have written a series of posts claiming that the assertion of natural rights in Lockean liberalism depends on the forceful resistance to oppression and tyranny, which suggests that it really is true that might makes right.  Natural rights emerge in history as those conditions for human life that cannot be denied without eventually provoking the natural human tendency of individuals to rebellion against exploitation.  Thus it is that individuals assert what Locke called "the executive power of the law of nature" in punishing those who violate their natural rights.

For this reason, the history of Lockean liberalism has often turned on the history of warfare--both revolutionary and international warfare--and the history of weaponry.  So, for example, the Declaration of Independence was not just a declaration of Lockean principles but also a declaration of war, so that the success of those principles depended on the fortunes of war.  Similarly, the American debate over the justice of slavery was settled by the bloodiest war in American history.  And the establishment of the liberal international order after World War Two depended on the defeat of Nazi Germany in the war.

Some of my posts on this line of reasoning can be found hereherehere, hereherehereherehere, and here.

Recently, in reading for the first time a lecture by Leo Strauss delivered in 1943, I was interested by some of his remarks suggesting that he might have agreed with me about this.  It was delivered at a public session on "The Re-education of Axis Countries Concerning the Jews" at the annual meeting of the Conference on Jewish Relations, November 7, 1943, at the New School for Social Research in New York.  Strauss never published this in his lifetime.  It was published for the first time in 2007 in The Review of Politics (vol. 69, pp. 530-38).  It can be found online.

Here's the long paragraph that caught my attention:
"When we speak of re-education, we imply that the wrong education, which is to be replaced by a second education, by a re-education, is of crucial political importance.  We are apt to imply that the root of the difficulties is some sort of education, of indoctrination, viz. the Nazi indoctrination.  Is this really the case?  And how is it the case?  We must beware of taking the Nazi doctrines, their Rassenkunde [racial anthropology] and their geopolitics and what not, too seriously.  What was important, what did influence the Germans, what educated the Germans were not those pedantic follies by themselves, but the prospect opened up by Nazi rearmament, by Nazi diplomacy, and by Nazi arms, of the solution of all German problems by a short and decisive war.  And, after the hope of a short victorious war was shattered by the Spitfires, the prospect of the solution of all German problems by a new Hubertusberg peace on a planetary scale. [The editor notes that "the Treaty of Hubertusburg at the end of the Seven Years War in 1763 established Prussia's place as a great European power."]  If we disregard the German high school teacher, if we consider the mass of the Germans, we shall find, I believe, that what guided their outlook, and hence their actions, was merely the crucial implication of the Nazi doctrine, viz. the implication that the needs of the German people as interpreted by the most efficient man in the land are the supreme law, not subject to any higher consideration.  To put it bluntly, the Nazi education consisted in this: that they convinced a substantial part of the German people that large scale and efficiently prepared and perpetrated crime pays.  I remember the argument of German students in the early 1920s: a country whose policies are not fettered by moral considerations is, other things being equal, twice as strong as a country whose policies are fettered by moral considerations.  For 50% of all possible ways and means are rejected, as immoral, by the moralistic countries, whereas all ways and means are open to the unscrupulous country.  It is evident that this doctrine is subject to the test of sense-experience and, hence, that the Nazi doctrine is a force only as long as Nazi strategy is successful.  The victory of the Anglo-Saxon-Russian combination, if followed by a just and stern and stable peace, will be the refutation of the Nazi doctrine, and thus will uproot Nazi education.  The re-education of German will not take place in classrooms: it is taking place right now in the open air on the banks of the Dnieper and among the ruins of the German cities. [The editor notes that "the Red Army crossed the Dnieper in early October 1943 and took Kiev November 6."]  It will be consummated by a meeting of British-American and of Russian tanks in Unter den Linden, and by the harmonious cooperation of the Western and Eastern occupying forces in bringing to trial the war criminals.  [Unter den Linden is a boulevard in the heart of Berlin.]  No proof is as convincing, as educating, as the demonstration ad oculos:  once the greatest German blockheads, impervious to any rational argument and to any feeling of mercy, will have seen with their own eyes that no brutality however cunning, no cruelty however shameless can dispense them from the necessity of relying on their victims' pity--once they have seen this, the decisive part of the re-educational process will have come to a successful conclusion" (532).
So Strauss thought that any talk about the need for "re-educating" the Germans was mistaken if this implied that the pretended theoretical doctrines of the Nazis should be taken seriously, because these theoretical doctrines were nothing more than "pedantic follies."  The only Nazi doctrine that was persuasive with the Germans was the claim that Nazi arms would win a short and decisive war that would give Germany global dominance that would solve all German problems and satisfy all the needs of the German people.  And this would all be possible because the Nazi leaders--under "the most efficient man in the land"--would be Machiavellian in being unconstrained by any moral considerations and consequently free to use all of the brutal means necessary for fighting a successful war.  The "moralistic countries" would be defeated by an utterly immoral country.  The Nazis would thus prove the Nazi doctrine "that large scale and efficiently prepared and perpetrated crime pays."

That Nazi doctrine is "subject to the test of sense-experience," because we can see with our own eyes whether immoral warfare is victorious or not on the battlefield.  And so the defeat of the Nazis in World War Two is "the refutation of the Nazi doctrine."  This began when "the hope of a short victorious war was shattered by the Spitfires."  The Spitfire was a single-seat fighter aircraft used by the British Royal Air Force throughout World War Two.  The Spitfire was perceived as crucial during the Battle of Britain (from July to October of 1940) for blunting the attack of Germany's air force, the Luftwaffe, and thus saving Great Britain from German conquest.  From that point, seeing that Great Britain could not be conquered, the Germans knew--by their own eyes--that they would be fighting a long and costly war.

Then, by the middle of 1943, the Germans were in full retreat on the Eastern Front, falling back from the attack of the Red Army; and the British and Americans had opened a Southern Front by invading Sicily (in July of 1943) and then advancing through Italy.  Strauss points to the Battle of the Dneiper River, which was being fought as he spoke.  This was one of the biggest military campaigns of the war, involving almost four million troops.  The German troops had retreated from Russia to the Dneiper River, one of the major rivers of Europe, which divided the Ukraine in half between the west bank and the east bank.  Beginning on August 26, the Red Army launched a campaign to take the eastern bank and then cross to the western bank.  As the Red Army moved through the villages, cities, and countryside where the Germans had brutally killed and tortured innocent people, the Red Army soldiers became ever more aroused to vengeful retaliation to punish the Germans for their brutality.  By December 23, six weeks after Strauss's lecture, they had succeeded in taking complete control of the river.  This explains Strauss's remark that "the re-education of Germany will not take place in classrooms: it is taking place right now in the open air on the banks of the Dnieper."

Strauss then foresaw that this re-education of Germany would be consummated by a meeting of Allied tanks in Berlin, and then the Western and Eastern occupying forces would bring the German leaders to trial for war crimes.  He was anticipating what became the Nuremberg war crimes trials that began in November of 1945, acting under international law and the laws of war.  Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels escaped this punishment by committing suicide in the spring of 1945 before they could be captured.  This would prove the Nazi doctrine wrong by proving that "large scale and efficiently prepared and perpetrated crime" does not pay.  But this lesson in the legal rule of just punishment had to be preceded by the lesson taught by the meeting of Allied tanks in Berlin.

Notice that to refute the Nazi doctrine of the immoral rule of the stronger over the weaker, Strauss suggests, we cannot appeal to some transcendent standard of right set by God, Nature, or Reason.  Rather, we must appeal to "the test of sense-experience" by seeing that "moralistic countries" can defeat immoral countries in war as an exercise of "the executive power of the law of nature."