Monday, July 11, 2011

Thomistic Nihilism, Greek Naturalism, and the Problem of Natural Right

The problem of natural right is the problem of whether nature has a intelligible order that can be known by human beings and followed as a guide for their lives.

Classic natural right such as one sees in the writings of Plato and Aristotle assumes that nature has an autonomous order of its own that can be known and followed by human beings.

Biblical religion assumes, however, that there is no autonomous order of nature, because nature is continually created ex nihilo by God, and thus at any moment, nature can collapse back into nothingness. Strictly speaking, then, nature as understood by the Socratic philosophers--nature as an enduring, self-contained, necessary order of being--does not exist from the view of Biblical religion.

Biblical religion thus creates the possibility of radical nihilism--the idea that nature depends on the mysterious, arbitrary power of God, and so there is no natural standard for human knowledge and action.

I have written about this contrast between Greek naturalism and Biblical nihilism in the chapters on Augustine and Nietzsche in Political Questions: Political Philosophy from Plato to Rawls.

This is, I think, Strauss's point when he says that the Bible has no idea of nature, and it is his worry about Biblical nihilism that motivates his criticism of Thomas Aquinas for making natural law too dependent on Biblical revelation.

I agree with Tom West that Strauss's critique of Aquinas is exaggerated. But I do think Strauss is correct in so far as Aquinas never fully escapes from Biblical nihilism.

As indications of Aquinas's nihilism, consider the following statements:

"Both reason and faith bind us to say that creatures are kept in being by God. . . . All creatures need to be preserved by God. for the being of every creature depends on God, so that not for a moment could it subsist, but would fall into nothingness were it not kept in being by the operation of the Divine power" (I, q. 104, a. 1).

"Some have held that God, in giving existence to creatures, acted from natural necessity. Were this true, God could not annihilate anything, since His nature cannot change. But . . . such an opinion is entirely false, and absolutely contrary to the Catholic faith, which confesses that God created things of His own free-will, according to Psalms 134:6--'Whatsoever the Lord pleased, He hath done.' Therefore that God gives existence to a creature depends on His will; nor does He preserve things in existence otherwise than by continually pouring out existence into them, as we have said. Therefore, just as before things existed, God was free not to give them existence, and not to make them; so after they have been made, He is free not to continue their existence; and thus they would cease to exist; and this would be to annihilate them" (I, q. 104, a. 3).

West tries to get around this theological nihilism through an interpretation of Aquinas's teaching on divine providence. West distinguishes three views of providence (67-68). The first view is that there is no divine providence. The second view is that God's providential power is so great and so arbitrary that there is no natural order at all. The third view is that God's providence is manifest in the eternal and unchanging order of nature and in the sharing of providence with human beings who exercise providence through their intellect. The second view, West argues, is the view taken by the Islamic theologians like al-Ghazali who deny the possibility of a natural order of causality as a blasphemous denial of God's unconstrained power. The second view is also taken by modern political theologians like Carl Schmitt. The third view is Aquinas's, which thus escapes from the nihilism of the second view that Strauss attributes to the Bible.

I agree with West that Aquinas does try hard to adhere to the third view, especially in his account of natural law. But he can never completely escape from Biblical nihilism.

One can see this in those many places in his writing where Aquinas embraces a divine command theory of morality--that the good is whatever God happens to command at any moment. For example, Abraham was justified in faithfully obeying God's command to kill his son Isaac: "Abraham did not sin in being willing to slay his innocent son, because he obeyed God, although considered in itself it was contrary to right human reason" (II-II, q. 154, a. 2, ad 2). Normally, killing innocent people is murder and contrary to natural law. But at any moment God can rightly command murder, because there is no natural law independent of God's arbitrary power.

After examining examples like this of Aquinas's divine command teaching, West explains: "Aquinas thereby draws attention to the unavoidable potential or actual conflict between the commandments of God who acts or seems to act outside the natural order (assuming that God is such a being) and the dictates of human reason. . . . Aquinas enables us to see that there is a choice to be made, theologically, between a willful, mysterious, and ultimately irrational God and a God who always acts in accord with the eternal law of reason" (77).

West leaves us wondering why Aquinas does not always make a clear choice in favor of "a God who always acts in accord with the eternal law of reason." The answer, I think, is that Aquinas cannot make this choice without openly denying Biblical religion.

For me, this is a big issue, because one of the most common objections to my argument for Darwinian natural right is that it fails to recognize that evolved human nature by itself cannot be the ground of moral judgment, because the ultimate ground is God's moral law as the command of his will.

Unfortunately, the proponents of divine-command reasoning fail to see the necessary implication of this teaching, which is nihilism.

Darwinian natural right is the alternative to such nihilism.

Some related posts can be found here, here, and here.

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