Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Straussian Critique--and Defense--of Thomas Aquinas (4): West's Replies, 5-8

(5) For Strauss, the most fundamental way in which Aquinas takes the side of revelation against reason is that he presents natural reason as pointing beyond itself to the supernatural end of eternal redemption.

Thomas apparently agrees with Strauss that the natural end of human beings is twofold--moral perfection and intellectual perfection--but that intellectual perfection (the philosophic life) is higher in dignity than moral perfection, and, in fact, the intellectual perfection of the philosopher does not even require moral virtue. In his chapter on "The Origin of the Idea of Natural Right" in Natural Right and History, Strauss explains:

Nature was discovered when man embarked on the quest for the first things in the light of the fundamental distinctions between hearsay and seeing with one's own eyes, on the one hand, and between things made by man and things not made by man, on the other. . . . The artificial things are seen to owe their being to human contrivance or to forethought. If one suspends one's judgment regarding the truth of the sacred accounts of the first things, one does not know whether the things that are not man-made owe their being to forethought of any kind, i.e., whether the first things originate all other things by way of forethought, or otherwise. Thus one realizes the possibility that the first things originate all other things in a manner fundamentally different from all origination by way of forethought. The assertion that all visible things have been produced by thinking beings or that there are any superhuman thinking beings requires henceforth a demonstration: a demonstration that starts from what all can see now. (88-89)

In his footnote to this passage, Strauss cites "Plato, Laws 888a-889c, 891c1-9, 892c2-7, 966d6-967e1. Aristotle Metaphysics 989b29-990a5, 1000a9-20, 1042a3ff.; De caelo 298b13-24. Thomas Aquinas Summa theologica i. qu. 2, a. 3."

The citation of Aquinas is to his famous five ways for proving the existence of God based on reasoning from effects to causes and arguing that to explain the visible effects in the natural world, we need to infer a Divine Mind as the invisible first cause. By including citations of Plato and Aristotle, Strauss suggests that Aquinas's natural theology as based on the idea that the universe is intelligently designed can be traced back to Plato and Aristotle. In fact, book 10 of Plato's Laws is the first full statement of intelligent design theory.

Strauss then writes:

In brief, then, it can be said that the discovery of nature is identical with the actualization of a human possibility which, at least according to its own interpretation, is trans-historical, trans-social, trans-moral, and trans-religious. (89)

The footnote to this passage quotes a remark from Arthur North Whitehead, and then it cites "Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica i. 2. qu. 58, a. 4-5, and qu. 104, a. 1; ii. 2, qu. 19, a. 7, and qu. 45, a. 3 (on the relation of philosophy to morality and religion)."

West correctly points out (85) that these passages from Aquinas cited here by Strauss seem to be in full agreement with Strauss concerning the "trans-moral" and "trans-religious" character of philosophic wisdom. Speaking of the Decalogue, Aquinas says that "some are moral precepts, which the reason itself dictates when it is quickened by faith; such as that God is to be loved and worshipped" (I-II, q. 104, a. 1, ad 3). This implies that natural reason by itself, if it is not "quickened by faith," does not teach the moral precepts of loving and worshipping God. Moreover, Aquinas explains: "Wisdom . . . is considered by us [religious believers] in one way, and in another way by philosophers. For, seeing that our life is ordained to the enjoyment of God, and is directed thereto, according to a participation of the Divine Nature, conferred on us through grace, wisdom, as we look at it, is considered not only as being cognizant of God, as it is with philosophers, but also as directing human conduct; since this is directed not only by the human law, but also by the Divine law, as Augustine shows" (II-II, q. 19, a. 7). So as a member of the Catholic community of believers, Aquinas must speak of natural wisdom as directed to supernatural ends--the loving and worshipping of God--in contrast to the purely philosophic view of wisdom as "trans-moral" and "trans-religious."

While Strauss criticizes Aquinas for asserting that natural reason points beyond itself to supernatural religious beliefs, West indicates how passages in Aquinas's writing that are cited by Strauss himself imply that Aquinas is only pretending to believe this because his rhetorical situation makes it impossible for him to deny it.

Strauss observes:

If we take Socrates as the representative of the quest for natural right, we may illustrate the relation of that quest to authority as follows: in a community governed by divine laws, it is strictly forbidden to subject these laws to genuine discussion, i.e., to critical examination, in the presence of young men. . . . This is not to deny that, once the idea of natural right has emerged and become a matter of course, it can easily be adjusted to the belief in the existence of divinely revealed law. (NRH, 85

West suggests that this was Aquinas's situation--living in a "community governed by divine laws" that could not be openly questioned without persecution. Therefore, he might have felt the need to disguise himself as "a philosopher dressed up in priestly robes," because this was the only way that he could defend natural right as "adjusted to the belief in the existence of divinely revealed law" (87).

(6) Strauss's sixth objection is that the term "natural law" is self-contradictory, because "nature" as it was originally discovered in ancient Greece was opposed to "law." Turning "natural right" into "natural law" implies that nature's order has been legislated by a divine lawmaker, which turns natural right into a divine positive law.

West replies to this objection by arguing that Aquinas indicates that natural law is a law only metaphorically. Natural law participates in eternal law, which is the unchanging and eternal order of Divine Reason that constitutes the order of nature. The rational creature "has a share of the Eternal Reason, whereby it has a natural inclination to its proper act and end: and this participation of the eternal law in the rational creature is called the natural law" (I-II, q. 91, a. 1-2). Strictly speaking, law implies some oral or written command, and we can speak of the eternal law as spoken by God or written in the Book of Life, but this would be only metaphorical (I, q. 24, a. 1; I-II, q. 91, a. 1, ad 2). Natural law as known by natural reason does not require belief in a divine lawgiver, because by natural reason, we come to know natural law as natural human instincts or inclinations that we can apprehend rationally and formulate as natural precepts of action. The God of natural law is nature's God.

(7) To Strauss's seventh objection--that Christian humility and self-denial deprive us of the proud spiritedness required for healthy politics--West replies that Aquinas actually defends the magnanimous pride and moral vengeance that support natural spiritedness. Aquinas defends magnanimity as a virtue that is compatible with humility, because while magnanimity is truly a virtue for the man who is truly great in comparison with other men, humility is a also a virtue when considering the great man's subordination to God (II-II, q. 129; q. 161, a. 1; q. 162, a. 3, ad 1).

In support of Aquinas, West quotes "a famous remark of Churchill illustrating precisely how magnanimity (which involves believing in one's complete superiority to one's fellow human beings) is perfectly compatible with humility toward God and the cosmos: 'We are all worms. But I do believe that I am a glow-worm" (57).

West also notes Aquinas's defends "vengeance" (vindicatio)--the natural disposition to see wrongdoers punished (I-II, q. 107, a. 2, ad 2; II-II, q. 108). In doing this, Aquinas has to overcome the apparent teaching of the New Testament--particularly, in the Sermon on the Mount--enjoining universal love, including love of our enemies. Christ's command not to resist evil does not hold in circumstances where it is right to kill our enemies (II-II, q. 40, a. 1).

Aquinas thus recognizes a right to resist evil that can become a right to revolution (II-II, q. 42, a. 2, ad 3).

Aquinas undercuts the selflessness of Christ's teaching of universal love by teaching that we must love ourselves first and then extend our love outward to those closest to us, so that we love some neighbors more than others (II-II, q. 26, a. 4-8, 13; q. 44, a. 8). Thus, Aquinas can teach that "we do not offend God except by doing something contrary to our own good" (Summa Contra Gentiles, bk. 3, ch. 122). Aquinas thus corrects the New Testament teaching of universal love and selflessness to conform to the natural desires of the human animal as inclined to love oneself and to love others as extensions of oneself. Here Aquinas follows Aristotle's biological account of animal sociality as rooted in friendship or affiliation (philia).

(8) It is hard for West to defend Aquinas against the Machiavellian charge that Christianity promotes "pious cruelty." After all, Aquinas clearly teaches that heretics can be rightly punished with death, and thus he endorses the Inquisition, which was carried out by his own religious order--the Dominicans (II-II, q. 11, a. 3). He also declares that the Church can punish rulers who become apostates by declaring that they have no authority over their subjects (II-II, q. 12, a. 2).

Here, however, Aquinas directly contradicts his teaching that human law is to be guided by natural law rather than divine law. The contradiction even appears within the same article: "lack of faith, in itself, is not inconsistent with dominion, since dominion is introduced by the right of nations, which is human right; whereas the distinction between the faithful and the unfaithful is according to divine right, through which human right is not destroyed" (II-II, q. 12, a. 2). "But if divine right does not destroy human right," West observes, "it is logically impossible for a deviation from divine right (apostasy) to destroy the human right of a magistrate to govern" (92).

Such an obvious contradiction, West suggests, must be deliberate, and it must be deliberately designed to alert the careful reader that the surface teaching is not Aquinas's true belief. Aquinas would have been instructed in such a technique of secret writing by his reading of Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed.

As I have indicated in a previous post, Shadia Drury regards Aquinas's support for the Inquisition as a clear example of how he betrayed natural law. But for West, this so clearly contradicts his teaching on natural law that it must have been intended to suggest a secret teaching contrary to what appears on the surface. Needless to say, Shadia is not likely to be persuaded by such a typically Straussian move.

But then we might wonder whether Strauss himself here is engaging in some secret writing. If it is so easy for West to defend Aquinas against Strauss's criticisms--often using passages in Aquinas's writings that are cited by Strauss himself--then may be Strauss knows that his criticisms are not warranted.

As West indicates, Strauss opens Natural Right and History by noting that the only people in his day who are defending natural right are "the Catholic and non-Catholic disciples of Thomas Aquinas" or "the modern followers of Thomas Aquinas," and he indicates that they are not in full agreement with Aquinas himself, because they reject the comprehensive natural science of Aristotle and Aquinas (NRH, 7-8). This suggests the possibility that in attacking Thomas Aquinas, Strauss is actually attacking the modern followers of Aquinas (people like Jacques Maritain or Etienne Gilson). For example, it might be that Strauss saw a tendency to dogmatism in the Neo-Thomist proponents of natural law that he wanted to criticize, even though he knew that Thomas himself was not so dogmatic.

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