Saturday, October 28, 2006

Sherlock Detects Strauss's Secret

In defending "Darwinian natural right" and "Darwinian conservatism," I show the influence of Leo Strauss and his students. But my effort to ground "natural right" in a scientific understanding of human nature is scorned by most Straussian scholars.

This points to the fundamental ambiguity in the legacy of Strauss. On the one hand, the powerful appeal of Strauss came from his warning that modern relativism and nihilism had created a crisis for the West by denying natural right or natural law as the ground for any natural standards for the true and the good. On the other hand, Strauss and his students have not offered any explanation for how exactly natural right or natural law can be defended in the modern world.

In a recent issue of Modern Age (Summer 2006), Richard Sherlock reflects on this ambiguity as manifesting "The Secret of Straussianism." Strauss's Natural Right and History is a profound account how how the premodern conception of natural right was subverted by modern relativism and nihilism. But then, as Sherlock indicates, the reader is left at the end of the book waiting for a philosophic grounding of natural right that will withstand the attack from modern traditions of thought. Strauss's silent refusal to satisfy this expectation indicates the true secret of Straussianism.

Contrary to the common assumption that Strauss was arguing for a return to classic natural right, Strauss was actually teaching--even if only by his silence--that a grounding of natural right is impossible. Consequently, Sherlock suggests, Strauss's appeal to premodern natural right was more rhetorical than philosophic. He thought it was morally and politically salutary to attack modern relativism and nihilism as inferior to classic natural right. But even as he did this, he left clear indications to his careful readers that there really was no ground in nature for natural right.

Sherlock rightly points to the most popular Straussian book--Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind--as conveying the secret teaching. Bloom scorns the debilitating effects of modern nihilism, and yet he praises Nietzsche as Socratic in his skepticism. Bloom's passionate devotion to philosophy as perpetual openness manifests the very nihilism that he supposedly rejects. (As I have indicated in some previous postings, Harvey Mansfield shows a similar skepticism about natural right, in his book on manliness, when he asserts "manly nihilism.")

Sherlock concludes, "the secret of Strauss's teaching is that there is no philosophic answer to the fundamental problems of human existence: What is the good? How shall I know it? How shall I live in its light?"

What could Strauss have done to ground natural right? Sherlock suggests that he should have followed the path taken by one of his fellow German Jews--Simone Weil--and turned toward faith or theology as the ultimate ground of moral and political judgment. I agree that such an alternative must be taken seriously, because it satisfies the natural human desire for religious understanding by moving beyond nature to nature's God as the uncaused cause of the cosmos, including the moral order of the whole.

But Sherlock also recognizes other possibilities. Strauss could have tried "to ground natural right in the scientific study of human nature, as some of his extended followers, such as Roger Masters and Larry Arnhart, have done."

As Strauss and many of his students have suggested, the problem of natural right could be solved only if we could defend a teleological conception of nature against the apparent denial of teleology in modern natural science. Natural right seems to require a cosmic teleology so that that the order of the whole universe supports human goodness.

But I would argue that natural right could be grounded in a biological teleology that does not require a cosmic teleology of the whole universe. Strauss points to this possibility in Natural Right and History: "For, however indifferent to moral distinctions the cosmic order may be thought to be, human nature, as distinguished from nature in general, may very well be the basis of such distinctions" (p. 94).

While Bloom seemed to endorse the idea of natural teleology as rooted in human biology, he also suggested that such natural teleology is only an illusion., even if a noble illusion. "I mean by teleology," Bloom wrote, "nothing but the evident, everyday observation and sense of purposiveness, which may be only illusory, but which ordinarily guides human life, the kind everyone sees in the reproductive process" (pp. 110, 130-31). The qualifying phrase--"which may be only illusory"--allowed him to simultaneously deny and affirm the truth of natural teleology, which creates a strangely ambiguous position that one can find among many of Strauss's students, wanting to root Aristotelian natural right in a science of human nature, but also wanting to adopt a Kantian dualism that separates nonhuman nature and human culture.

One reason for this Straussian ambiguity is that Bloom and others think that the teleology required for natural right is a cosmic teleology that has been rendered implausible by modern science. But as I have argued, Aristotelian natural right requires only an immanent teleology--the observable goal-directed character of living beings--that is supported by Darwinian biology. Here I agree with Leon Kass that a crucial part of a "more natural science" would be a Darwinian understanding of teleology as rooted in "the internal and immanent purposiveness of individual organisms" (Towards a More Natural Science, pp. 249-75).

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