Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Leo Strauss's "Epilogue": Natural Right and Biology

One of the readings for my recent Liberty Fund conference on "Hayek and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge" was Leo Strauss's "Epilogue," which was originally published in 1962 as the last essay in Essays on the Scientific Study of Politics, edited by Herbert Storing.

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, and here.


w said...

Dr. Arnhart,

This is a wonderful post.

Since Strauss was so notoriously careful and circumspect in his writing, and particularly his later writing, and as you point out since he seems to hint at the animate/inanimate distinction within an understanding of nature (and by extension, natural right) – and explicitly acknowledges it in his quote about Biology in the presumably less guarded correspondence with Kojeve - do you think he was pointing at your broad argument, or at least its possibility, for the careful reader? If so, it calls into question, why he did not want to raise its possibility more directly or forcefully.

I don’t have it in front of me, but somewhere (one his essays? in his chapter on Plato in the History of Political Philosophy?) he gives a description of the Greek understanding and use of physis. It really contains biological elements (potential, becoming, arĂȘte, telos, etc.). This raises the question of his understanding of the “Greek” view of how biology and nature more broadly differ.

And, of course, your Aristotlean emphasis on biology does also point to the question of “what is biology,” and the nature of the distinction within nature of animate from inanimate. The concept of emergence seems helpful in this setting, but, perhaps, raises as many questions as it answers.

To pose a possible answer to my first two questions above, perhaps Strauss preferred to hint at these questions or raise them as questions rather than take them on directly as his topic since he did not view them as his primary focus (viz. his various themes regarding the “human things” as understood at the commonsensical, or pre-scientific, level such as the [moral] “crisis of the West,” how to restore the ground for moral judgment against the intellectual forces of positivism and historicism, etc.)?

Thanks, and excuse the rambling comment, Wbond

P.S. To those who find Strauss’ writing oblique and frustrating rather than profound and charming, one needs only to point to his ability to use rhetoric flourish when he desired such as you quote in that concluding paragraph: “It is excused by two facts…” Absolutely brilliant.

Kent Guida said...

Mr. Bond,
Roger Masters wrote about Strauss making an esoteric hint in the direction of the biological approach to natural right. It was the piece that put me on the trail that led to Arnhart.

"Evolutionary Biology and Natural Right" in Deutsch and

I'm not sure anyone took Masters seriously on this, as I don't recall a follow-up from anyone, including Masters. But you should read it, because it's exactly what you suggest.
Kent Guida

Larry Arnhart said...

I have a special fondness for that Masters article. I read an early version of it in 1978, when Masters presented it as a conference paper in Chicago. It got me started on my road to Darwinian natural right.

w said...

Kent Guida,

Thanks. I am aware of Masters (primarily from this blog and Prof. Arnhart’s books). The book you reference is somewhere on my Amazon “wish list.” I clearly need to get around to tracking it down and reading that essay.

(By the way, the Strauss description of the Greek “nature” I was thinking of above is in the Introduction to “History of Political Philosophy” - as both of you are probably aware. In addition to noting that the Greek idea of nature needed to be discovered [and does not exist in the Hebrew Bible, for example], and that it is contrasted with both nomos and art, he also refers to it as having an original meaning related to “growth” which is obviously biologic. In any case, on re-reading that passage these years later, I am left with more questions than I was before regarding Strauss’ description).

Thanks again.

spelunker said...

I too am a Roger Masters admirer, though in my case I was exposed to his work through footnotes and references from Larry's Darwinian Natural Right. In my opinion some of the most profound thoughts on the rise of the modern nation state from biological foundations lies in several chapters in Roger's The Nature of Politics. I noted his work cited and referenced in several seminal texts in ethology in particular I. Eibl-Eibesfeldt's Human Ethology.

Just a comment.


Larry Arnhart said...

My thoughts about Masters can be found in "Roger Masters: Natural Right and Biology," in Ken Deutsch and John Murley, eds., LEO STRAUSS, THE STRAUSSIANS, AND THE AMERICAN REGIME (1999), 293-304.

Empedocles said...

I'm going to again suggest that people pick up Ruth Millikan's "Language, Thought, and Other Biological Categories", the new locus classicus for understanding teleology Darwinistically. It not only explains how things like hearts and kidneys can have a biological functions, but unique and original behaviors like thought, actions, and spoken language. It had traditionally been thought that since evolution occurred in the past, then original things like thoughts and language could not have a evolutionary function. Millikan explains all of this.

lanny zambo said...

The criticism of American social science is similar to the criticism he made of neo-Kantianism earlier in his career. That's not surprising, Max Weber being the model of social science for Strauss.

Tony said...

Dr. Arnhart,

Does Darwinian science really "refute" cosmic teleology? Is it even possible to refute it? Perhaps I don't fully understand what that kind of teleology requires and/or what it means to refute it. Plato's and Aristotle's cosmic explanations strike me as salutary mythmaking rather than science (that for Aristotle, at least, would serve to reinforce the imminent teleology that he saw in the animal kingdom, and which is the focus of your scholarship).

Surely, they understood--what modern commentators generally seem not to understand--that there's no way for us to prove or disprove that kind of thing. Isn't it more accurate to say that we tend to assume a nonteleological universe in modern times, whereas a teleological universe was previously what was assumed?

Larry Arnhart said...


I am not sure I understand what you mean by speaking about cosmic explanations "as salutary mythmaking rather than science."

How can "mythmaking" be "salutary" if everyone understands that it's only "mythmaking"?

Or are you implying that the inferior many are supposed to believe the myth to be simply true, while the superior few understand it to be false?

If so, does the ranking of the superior few as superior depend on a cosmic myth?

If the Platonic Theory of the Ideas is itself a myth, does that mean that the supremacy of the philosophic life--as the life of pursuing the intelligible order of things--is also a myth?

Why did Aristotle criticize Plato's Theory of the Ideas and his cosmology if Aristotle knew that it was all a myth?

Are you implying that Straussian Platonism ultimately coincides with Nietzschean nihilism?