Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The Straussian Critique--and Defense--of Thomas Aquinas

Leo Strauss and the Straussians show ambiguity and ambivalence in their understanding of Thomas Aquinas and the Thomistic natural law teaching. On the one hand, one would expect them to be proponents of Thomistic natural law in so far as this belongs to the tradition of "classic natural right" that they generally defend. And yet, on the other hand, the religious dogmatism and otherworldly attitudes of Thomas's Catholic Christianity run contrary to the prudent flexibility and rationalist naturalism that the Straussians see in the classical view of natural right manifest in the writings of Plato and Aristotle.

The important issue here is not merely a matter of how to interpret Strauss, but rather the question of whether natural law can resolve what Strauss called "the crisis of liberal democracy." Modern liberal thought has largely rejected the appeal to natural standards--as in natural right or natural law--for judging moral and political life, which tends to promote a relativist or historicist view of life that makes it impossible to defend liberal democracy against its enemies. The threat of totalitarianism in the 20th century deepened this crisis, and in response to this, many serious thinkers in the 1940s and 1950s sought a revival of natural law thinking as possibly providing the natural standards of judgment that were need to defend liberal democracy against totalitarianism. Strauss's writing was seen as part of this intellectual movement. In the Foreword to Strauss's Natural Right and History, Jerome Kerwin described the book as defense of "the traditionalists natural law doctrine" to counter the threat from twentieth-century totalitarianism. But it's not clear that Strauss's defense of "classic natural right" in this book includes a defense of "traditionalist natural law" as associated with Thomas Aquinas.

In the 21st century, the threats from totalitarianism--fascist, Nazi, and communist--don't seem as urgent as they were in earlier decades, although political Islamism sometimes seems to pose a similar threat. But if we now hope for a global political order based on promoting "human rights," we must wonder whether the idea of "human rights" presupposes some notion of a universal human nature that implicitly invokes something like traditional natural law reasoning.

Strauss's critical analysis of Thomistic natural law can help us to decide whether natural law is defensible in the circumstances we face today. A good place to begin in studying that Straussian analysis is a paper by Thomas G. West (of the University of Dallas)--"Thomas Aquinas on Natural Law: A Critique of the 'Straussian' Critique." This long paper (100 pages) was presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in 2006, and it can be downloaded at the APSA website.

West defends Aquinas against Strauss's criticisms by arguing that Aquinas takes the side of reason against revelation in a way that conforms to Strauss's own position, although Aquinas had to hide this teaching to avoid alienating his Catholic readers. And yet West also argues that Strauss intimates that he understood this, and that Strauss's apparent criticisms of Thomas were actually intended to be criticisms of the distorted Thomism advocated by some of the Thomist philosophers and theologians of Strauss's time.

As I will indicate in a series of posts, I agree with West on most of his points. But I also think that West does not see that Thomas's taking the side of reason over revelation depends upon his biological account of natural law as founded on a biological understanding of human nature as a set of dispositional properties. Moreover, West does not see how this biologically grounded natural law can be supported by modern Darwinian biology in a way that solves what Strauss identified as the fundamental problem for natural right in the modern world--the apparent denial of classic natural right by modern natural science.

I will be referring mostly to Aquinas's Summa Theologica (ST), but also to some of his other writings. All of Aquinas's writings with parallel Latin/English texts can be found at Joseph Kenny's website.


Empedocles said...

I hope you are not going to be taking the side in favor of seeing human nature as a set of dispositional properties. Bigelow and Pargeter have tried this and have been roundly rejected. See "The modern philosophical resurrection of teleology" by Mark Perlman for an overview of the various positions on modern takes on the nature of biological teleology. It's online here:

Kent Guida said...

Looking forward to your discussion of this important question, and, I hope, to Tom West's response.