For this book, Walter Berns wrote an essay on American voting studies, Storing wrote on Herbert Simon's science of administration, Leo Weinstein wrote on Arthur Bentley's group theory of politics, and Robert Horwitz wrote on Harold Lasswell's studies of propaganda.
I must confess that this essay by Strauss did not go over very well, because most of the discussants found it to be confusing and irritating. Strauss seemed to be criticizing a crude caricature of social science. Also, the bitter tone of his writing showed a curmudgeonly temperament that many of the discussants found unpalatable.
Those of us who knew something about Strauss and the Straussians tried to explain the significance of this essay by explaining its historical context, which we thought was important for understanding why Strauss had such a powerful effect on so many of his students at the University of Chicago.
Strauss opens and closes his essay by referring to "the crisis of the modern Western World," which was "the crisis of liberal democracy" in its battle with its enemies. In 1962, the most obvious manifestation of this crisis was the Cold War, with liberal democracy threatened by communism. Strauss's attack on the "new political science" was rooted in his worry about this global crisis. "Whereas acting man has necessarily chosen values, the new political scientist as pure spectator is not committed to any value; in particular, he is neutral in the conflict between liberal democracy and its enemies" (324). A value-free political science cannot provide any rational defense of liberal democratic values, and thus it "has nothing to say against those who unhesitatingly prefer surrender, that is, the abandonment of liberal democracy, to war" (327).
This leads Strauss directly into the bitter conclusion of the essay:
Only a great fool would call the new political science diabolic: it has no attributes peculiar to fallen angels. It is not even Machiavellian, for Machiavelli's teaching was graceful, subtle, and colorful. Nor is it Neronian. Nevertheless, one may say of it that it fiddles while Rome burns. It is excused by two facts: it does not know that it fiddles, and it does not know that Rome burns.
But as important as the Cold War was in creating the urgency and vehemence of Strauss's essay, his understanding of the "crisis of liberal democracy" had a broader context than just the Cold War: the broadest context was the entire history of political philosophy or political science from Plato to the present. Modern political science (beginning with Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke) had broken away from the tradition of Aristotelian natural right, and the new political science was only the latest development in that intellectual break. The problem is that if there is no standard of natural right--no natural standard of right and wrong, good and bad, just and unjust--if all values are merely subjective preferences that have no objective truth for all human beings, then we must inevitably fall into historicism, relativism, and nihilism. In that condition, a commitment to liberal democracy is nothing more than an irrational choice, an arbitrary value judgment, that cannot be defended by any rational argument as superior to its alternatives.
The exhilaration felt by many of Strauss's students came from the sweeping history of philosophic ideas that Strauss presented to them, which allowed them to understand the urgent political events of the day as part of a human drama stretching over thousands of years. Moreover, he led them to believe that the study of political philosophy was the only way to participate in that continuing historical drama at the highest level.
A crucial turning point in that drama came with the emergence of modern science, beginning in the seventeenth century, which overturned Aristotelian science, and thus overturned Aristotelian natural right. This is what I was hoping would come up in our discussion.
I might have been more successful if I had had the participants read the "Introduction" to Strauss's Natural Right and History along with the "Epilogue." In fact, there are so many points of correspondence between these two texts that I wonder whether Strauss looked back at his "Introduction" while writing the "Epilogue."
What I find perplexing in these two texts is Strauss's failure to consider how Aristotelian natural right depends not on physics or cosmology but on biology, and how Darwinian biology can support something like Aristotelian natural right.
Aristotelian natural right depends on a biological science that recognizes natural kinds and natural ends. If we can recognize the human species as a natural kind, and if we can recognize that as members of that human species, human beings have natural ends, then we can understand natural right as the fulfillment of those natural ends. Darwinian science recognizes the enduring reality of the human species, although it is not eternally fixed; and it also recognises the immanent teleology of the human species as directed to its natural ends.
In the "Introduction," Strauss asserts that Aristotelian natural right depends on "a teleological view of the universe, of which the teleological view of man forms a part," but this seems to have been destroyed by modern natural science. "The issue between the mechanical and the teleological conception of the universe is decided by the manner in which the problem of the heavens, the heavenly bodies, and their motion is solved" (7-8). But this ignores the fact that most of Aristotle's examples of teleology are of plants and animals, not of the heavens.
In the "Epilogue," Strauss lays out Aristotle's distinctions between the theoretical sciences and the practical sciences, based on a passage in the Metaphysics (1025b1-1026a33). But Strauss ignores Aristotle's biological works and Aristotle's claim that the natural science of living beings--as opposed to physical cosmology--is "nearer to us and more akin to our nature." And he implies that Socrates was wrong to identify "nature" with astronomy, while also criticizing the cosmic teleology of Plato's Timaeus (PA, 642a28-30, 644b22-646a5; Meta, 987a30-b20). Human life belongs to a world of living beings, which show natural patterns of flux and becoming rather than fixity and eternity.
In the "Epilogue," Strauss implies that the Aristotelian understanding of human nature contradicts the Darwinian understanding:
According to the Aristotelian view, man is a being sui generis, with a dignity of its own; man is the rational and political animal. Man is the only being that can be concerned with self-respect; man can respect himself because he can despise himself; he is "the beast with red cheeks," the only being possessing a sense of shame. . . . The presupposition of all this is that man is radically distinguished from non-man, from brutes as well as from gods. . . . The new political science, on the other hand, is based on the fundamental premise that there are no essential or irreducible differences: there are only differences of degree; in particular there is only a difference of degree between men and brutes or between men and robots. In other words, according to the new political science, or the universal science of which the new political science is a part, to understand a thing means to understand it in terms of its genesis or its conditions and hence, humanly speaking, to understand the higher in terms of the lower; the human in terms of the sub-human, the rational in terms of the subrational, the political in terms of the sub-political. In particular, the new political science cannot admit that the common good is something that is. (310-311)
Strauss does not note that Aristotle compared human beings with other political animals, while also recognizing that the rational capacities of human beings can be seen in at least rudimentary form in other animals. Aristotle even dissected chimpanzees and concluded that, more than any other animal, they resembled human beings.
Nor does Strauss note that while Darwin did speak of the human difference as only a difference in degree, he also recognized that human beings were unique in their capacities for language, self-conscious thought, and moral judgment.
At the Liberty Fund conference, the reading following Strauss was an excerpt from Ernst Mayr's What Makes Biology Unique?. Mayr argues that Darwinian biology confirms much of Aristotle's biology. While Darwinian science refutes any cosmic teleology, it supports the immanent teleology of species as directed towards ends, which is the form of teleology that Aristotle saw.
Strauss seemed to concede that Aristotelian natural right required only an immanent teleology when he wrote: "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. . . . We must therefore distinguish between those human desires and inclinations which are natural and those which originate in conventions. Furthermore, we must distinguish between those human desires and inclinations which are in accordance with human nature and therefore good for man, and those which are destructive of his nature or his humanity and therefore bad" (Natural Right and History, 94-95).
Some posts on related topics can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.