Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Why is Natural Right a Problem for Leo Strauss?

In my seminar on Leo Strauss, we are now reading Natural Right and History.  Reading it again reminds me of what a strange book it is.  The first paragraph of the Introduction creates the impression that this is going to be a book defending natural right (particularly, as expressed in the American Declaration of Independence) against historicism (particularly, as expressed in German thought).  But then, after speaking of the "need for natural right" and the "disastrous consequences" of the "rejection of natural right," Strauss indicates that even if belief in natural right is "indispensable for living well," that might mean that it is a "salutary myth" that is not really true.  He then concludes the Introduction by speaking of "the problem of natural right." 

The problem is that while "natural right in its classic form is connected with a teleological view of the universe," it seems that modern natural science has refuted this cosmic teleology.  From the point of view of Aristotle, Strauss explains, how we settle this issue will be decided by "the manner in which the problem of the heavens, the heavenly bodies, and their motion is solved."  Consequently, "an adequate solution to the problem of natural right cannot be found before this basic problem has been solved." 

The reader might expect, then, that Strauss is going to solve this basic problem in this book.  On the contrary, Strauss denies this expectation in the last paragraph of the Introduction: "Needless to say, the present lectures cannot deal with this problem.  They will have to be limited to that aspect of the problem of natural right which can be clarified within the confines of the social sciences."  And, indeed, when the reader reaches the end of the book, it seems that the problem of natural right is still an unsolved problem.

This has led some of Strauss's readers to suspect that Strauss was a nihilist who saw natural right as nothing more than a "salutary myth."  Some readers have found support for this suspicion in Strauss's claim that the cause of natural right might be "hopeless," because "there cannot be natural right if all that man could know about right were the problem of right" (24). 

Moreover, in the "Preface to the 7th Impression" of Natural Right and History that Strauss wrote in 1970, just three years before his death, he stated: "Nothing that I have learned has shaken my inclination to prefer 'natural right,' especially in its classic form, to the reigning relativism, positivist or historicist."  To identify this as his "preference" sounds like the historicist position as he describes it in his book (47).  But what would it mean for a historicist to "prefer" natural right over historicism?  (I thank David Bahr for drawing my attention to Strauss's Preface of 1970.)

As I have indicated in some previous posts, I believe that the only solution to the problem of natural right that affirms the truth of the idea of natural right is Darwinian natural right.  Furthermore, I believe that Strauss points to that solution in Natural Right and History, although he does not clearly and fully embrace it.  He can't embrace it for two reasons.  First, he fears that Darwinian science is a "deadly truth" that is deadly because it denies the popular belief in the cosmic teleology of intelligent design or divine creation.  Second, he agrees with Heidegger's historicism in rejecting evolutionary biology as degrading in its reductionistic account of human beings as different in degree but not in kind from other animals.

In Natural Right and History, Strauss points to Darwinian natural right in various ways.  First of all, he points to the idea that Aristotelian natural right does not really require a cosmic teleology as long as we can understand the natural good as what is naturally desirable for human beings.  He writes:
. . . The denial of natural right thus appears to be the consequence of the denial of particular providence.  But the example of Aristotle alone would suffice to show that it is possible to admit natural right without believing in particular providence or in divine justice proper.
For, 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.  To illustrate the point by the example of the best-known pre-Socratic doctrine, namely, of atomism, the fact that the atoms are beyond good and bad does not justify the inference that there is nothing by nature good or bad for any compounds of atoms, and especially for those compounds which we call "men."  In fact, no one can say that all distinctions between good and bad which men make or all human preferences are merely conventional.  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.  We are thus led to the notion of a life, a human life, that is good because it is in accordance with nature.  Both parties to the controversy admit that there is such a life, or, more generally expressed, they admit the primacy of the good as distinguished from the just.  The controversial issue is whether the just is good (by nature good) or whether the life in accordance with human nature requires justice or morality. (94-95)
In saying that the good is rooted in the "human desires and inclinations" of human nature, Strauss adds in a footnote that "this notion was accepted by 'almost all' classical philosophers," as indicated in Cicero's De finibus (5.17).  In this passage, Cicero writes:
Now almost all have agreed that the subject with which prudence is occupied and the end which it desires to attain is bound to be something intimately adapted to our nature.  It must be capable of directly arousing and awakening a desire of the mind [appetitum animi], what in Greek is called horme.  But what it is that at the first moment of our existence excites in our nature this impulse of desire--as to this there is no agreement.  It is at this point that all the difference of opinion among students of the ethical problem arises.  Of the whole inquiry into the ends of goods and bads and the question which among them is ultimate and final, the fountainhead is to be found in the earliest instincts of nature.
If the good is the desirable, and the naturally good is the naturally desirable, and if the naturally desirable is rooted in our natural human instincts, then the question of natural right becomes the question of how best to understand the range of our instinctively natural desires.  This assumes an immanent teleology of human nature that does not require a "teleological view of the universe."  And while cosmic teleology has been refuted by modern natural science, the immanent teleology of evolved human nature can be supported by modern evolutionary science.

Strauss refuses, however, to openly and fully embrace that conclusion.

I will have more to say about this in some future posts.


Tony said...

What I always wondered about this idea that modern physics had debunked the teleological view of the universe is what had previously supplied the bunk. I mean, on what did Aristotle base this view and in what sense has that basis truly been destroyed?
It seems to me that he based it some notion of necessity, the same way he concludes a necessity for a principle of non-contradiction. As far as I can tell he never claimed to be able to prove either, only that they were sine qua non for having any confidence in natural right and the reasoning process itself.

Modern science has not and could not debunk this. It has merely debunked the particular form of teleology (literally) imagined by Aristotle. With modern knowledge available to him, he might have imagined another form that served the same basic idea.
An often overlooked element of Strauss's analysis here is his use of the word "seems" when he discusses the debunking work of modern physics. Of course, by your insinuation that he's really an historicist at heart, Strauss only cares about the seeming and not the being of natural right. If modern physics "seems" to debunk teleology, then teleology cannot have the salutary mythological power that Strauss would wish for it.
It is important to note that Strauss never says, nor I think would say, that teleology actually has been debunked. Modern science does not have that capability.

This brings us to why he would find your Darwin idea insufficient. It's not because it lacks a certain degree of probability as a causal basis for the emergence of general human norms. He probably wouldn't give a fig about that. It's because it doesn't satisfy the profound human desire to find something deeper to rest morality on, and more importantly, it doesn't have the rhetorical power needed to provide morality's necessary political and social reinforcements.

Xenophon said...

It's worth reading Roger Masters' comments on this point in his essay, "Evolutionary Biology and Natural Right" in The Crisis of Liberal Democracy: A Straussian Perspective (ed. K. Deutsch and W. Soffer, SUNY Press, 1987). Masters claims that Aristotle's passages don't actually make the claims that Strauss attributes to him. What's your thought on that? And even those who deny cosmic teleology such as Lucretius still have a natural right teaching of sorts. It still remains puzzling to me why Strauss would claim that natural right is connected to a telological view of the universe when his own analysis of classic natural right would seem to show oherwise.

Xenophon said...

You wrote: "To identify this as his "preference" sounds like the historicist position as he describes it in his book (47). But what would it mean for a historicist to "prefer" natural right over historicism?"

I don't understand your point here. Why is preferring something a "historicist" position? Preferences (contra Weber) can be rationally grounded or be based on something that seems most persuasive or probable based on the available evidence. Or preferences can be based on nature rather than simply whim or convention or personal idiosyncracies. Calling it a "preference" may indicate that the debate may never be definitively resolved in the way that a mathematical or scientific problem can be.

Larry Arnhart said...


I have commented on Masters' response to Strauss in DARWINIAN NATURAL RIGHT and in "Roger Masters: Natural Right and Biology," in Deutsch and Murley, eds., LEO STRAUSS, THE STRAUSSIANS, AND THE AMERICAN REGIME, 293-304.

Larry Arnhart said...


Strauss insists that the true philosopher never accepts anything based on authority or faith, but always demands proof.

Where does Strauss prove the truth of natural right? Where does Strauss prove that the philosophic life is the only truly good life?

What I find remarkable is how often Strauss speaks of his "preference" for natural right or philosophy, but without providing any substantive argumentation to prove that this preference is true.

Often Strauss will speak about how Farabi or Maimonides or some other premodern philosopher asserts something, leaving the reader to assume that Strauss is endorsing this. But then there's no proof that this must be true.

Why does Strauss write this way?

Kent Guida said...

Your case gets more interesting as the presentation unfolds. If I understand you correctly, you are suggesting Strauss anticipated Darwinian natural right, and perhaps even left signposts for you and Roger Masters to discover, but rejected it before the fact because such a teory would be politically and rhetorically insufficient. In other words, don't bring it up because no one would buy it.

The more evidence you present, the more plausible this idea appears. But how do Strauss's students fit in? Are Jaffa, Mansfield and the Zuckerts in on it and carrying out the plan by carefully avoiding Darwinian natural right or deliberately misunderstanding your arguments? We have to consider that possibility, no?

I have always thought they simply never took the time to understand your work. After all, you said Jaffa admits to never having read Darwin. And the Zuckert misunderstanding you cite in your post of 9/26/09 seems otherwise hard to explain.

But perhaps they read the signposts and agreed we should not go there. Wouldn't that explain the phenomena? It would make a remarkable story. Perhaps I can pitch it to Oliver Stone. I am eager to read the next chapter.

Xenophon said...

You wrote: "Strauss insists that the true philosopher never accepts anything based on authority or faith, but always demands proof. Where does Strauss prove the truth of natural right? Where does Strauss prove that the philosophic life is the only truly good life? What I find remarkable is how often Strauss speaks of his "preference" for natural right or philosophy, but without providing any substantive argumentation to prove that this preference is true."

I think the words "proof" and "prove" are ambiguous. Remember Aristotle's warning in Nic. Ethics I, that we should only demand the rigor and exactness appropriate to the subject matter.

The only real strict "proofs" we have for anything are in mathematics, logic and set theory. And even there, as the proofs become longer and more complex, there is room for doubt that we have missed a false step; i.e. the first attempt by Andrew Wiles to prove Fermat's theorem in 1993 was discovered to have a flaw and had to be revised.

As you know, Darwin never claimed that he had proved his theory of evolution beyond all possible doubt, just that it provided the best fit for the available data, what's been called "inference to the best explanation". As he wrote, " Some of the [objections] are so serious that to this day I can hardly reflect on them without being in some degree staggered; but, to the best of my judgment, the greater number are only apparent, and those that are real are not, I think, fatal to the theory." That seems to me an eminently reasonable position and the subsequent history of science bears this out. But it also means that Darwinian Natural Right can never be "proved" beyond all possible doubt because new scientific evidence could be discovered in future that might require radical revision or abandonment of Darwinian theory.

To talk about "proofs" in political philosophy or metaphysics must be relative to the degree of certainty of the subject matter. Strauss says somewhere in his "Restatement on Xenophon's Hiero" that philosophy in the Socratic sense is zetetic or sceptical.

Perhaps this passage from Cicero shows what I mean: "for even though many difficulties hinder every branch of knowledge and both the subjects themselves and our faculties of judgment involve such a lack of certainty that the most ancient and learned thinkers had good reason for distrusting their ability to discover what they desired, nevertheless they did not give up, nor will we abandon in exhaustion our zeal for research; and the sole object of our discussions is by arguing on both sides to draw out and give shape to some result that may be true or the nearest approximation to the truth. Nor is there any difference between ourselves and those who think they have positive knowledge except they have no doubt that their tenets are true, whereas we hold many doctrines as probable, which we can act upon but scarcely advance as certain.." (Academica II,iii).
It's in this sense, I think, that Strauss claimed to prefer classic natural right as seeming most probable to him, while continuing to investigate the arguments against it.

Larry Arnhart said...

If we agree with Strauss tht the philosophic life is the life of relentless questioning and inquiry where one accepts nothing as true unless it has been proven to be true based on what we can see and know for ourselves, rather than relying on faith on what others have told us, then it is self-contradictory to choose to live such a life without demonstrative proof that this is so.

It's not clear to me that Strauss ever gives us such demonstrative proof. Instead, he appeals to the authority of Socrates, Plato, and other philosophers for the claim that philosophy is the best life.

Strauss points to this problem in "Reason and Revelation" (1948): "The quest for knowledge implies in all cases where sufficient eidence is lacking, assent must be withheld or judgment must be suspended. . . . The philosophic enterprise presupposes that the question of how one ought to live be settled in advance. It is settled by the pre-philosophic proof of the thesis that the one way of life, the one thing needful, is the life devoted to philosophy and to nothing else. The pre-philosophic proof is later on confirmed, within philosophy, by an analysis of human nature. However that may be, according to its original meaning, philosophy is the right way of life, the happiness of man. All other human pursuits are accordingly considered fundamentally defective, or forms of human misery, however splendid."

"However this may be"??

Why does Strauss insist that we must have a "pre-philosophic proof" for the supremacy of the philosophic life, but then he refuses to provide us such a proof?

bjdubbs said...

Darwinios: Socrates, is philosophy the best way of life?
Socrates: Darwinios, if I asked you if a whale were warm-blooded, what would you say?
D: Yes, Socrates. It is a mammal.
S: Right. But first you would need to know what a whale is, correct? Before you can say it is warm-blooded, you must know what it is. This I once taught Meno about virtue.
D: So I've heard.
S: And before I answer whether the philosophical life is the best, first I must ask what it is.
D: Yes, that is correct.
S: But is the philosophical life the sort of thing that has a what? Not everything does. Parmenides taught me that.
D: Not like a whale has a what, I imagine.
S: So the philosophical life can only be examined by philosophers who are living the philosophical life.
D: Right.
S: But to examine a whale, is it not necessary to first kill the whale?
D: Yes, that is correct, Socrates.
S: The philosophical life, Darwinios, must first be lived. It cannot be examined, like a dead whale.
D: Yes, Socrates. But is it the best way of life?
S: We must ask the philosopher, who is living the life.
D: Are you saying that we must first kill the philosopher, Socrates? Like we would a whale? And then ask him?
S: No. A way of life and a whale are different kinds of things. But we can talk to the philosopher and understand monuments to his life, like the Platonic dialogues.
D: Does that mean the philosopher makes a groundless decision to philosophize? That doesn't sound very philosophical.
S: As I told Glaucon at the end of the Republic, philosophers are selected for the philosphical life before they are born. They don't choose it themselves.
D: Socrates, by that argument, isn't the life dedicated to reason self-negating?
S: It is a way of life, Darwinios, not a thing that can be the object of a proof, like a Platonic solid. Or examined, like a dead whale.
D: Right. I must be going now, Socrates.

Larry Arnhart said...

Darwinios: Socrates, this morning you said that "philosophers are selected for the philosophical life before they are born." What did you mean?

Socrates: I meant something like what my friend Leo once wrote: "philosophy is essentially the preserve of the very few individuals who are by nature fit for philosophy."

D: So the goodness of philosophy comes from its satisfying a natural desire?

S: Yes, of course.

D: But only a few individuals are born with a natural temperament so that this natural desire is the highest desire for them?

S: Yes, by Zeus, that is true.

D: If you're saying that the good is the desirable, and one of the natural desires for human beings is the desire for understanding, then I agree that the philosophic life is a good life for those naturally born for this life. I too have chosen that life--the life of science or natural philosophy--a life of endless inquiry into the nature of the first things.

S: What have you learned from your studies of nature?

D: I have learned that Lucretius was right in arguing that we could explain the whole order of the cosmos as produced by an evolutionary process of necessity and chance, without any need for intelligent design.

S: By the dog, I agree. But I fear that for most people that is a deadly truth. So I see the need for enforcing a natural theology of intelligent design, something like what the Athenian Stranger discussed in one of Plato's dialogues.

D: Yes, but I'm afraid that because of your insisting on teaching this as a noble lie, some of your students of your friend Leo have attacked me as morally and politically subversive in my teaching of Darwinian natural right.

S: In the best city, your teaching of evolution would be done in secret to protect the public teaching from attack.

D: I want to discuss that more with you. But let's go back to our previous point about the goodness of the philosophic life. As I said, I can recognize that philosophy is a human good in satisfying the natural desire for understanding. But what I can't understand is Leo's assertion that the philosophic life is only good life, that any life with a different ranking of the natural desires--so that the desire for understanding is not ranked absolutely at the top--is not a good life at all. Leo even says that all the lives that are not philosophic are "forms of misery" and lives of "despair disguised by delusion." Leo says that "if we understand by God the most perfect being that is a person, there are no gods but the philosophers." Isn't that an unreasonable denial of our commonsense experience of the many forms of human happiness, based on different rankings of natural desires as suited to the natures of different individuals?

S: Yes, Darwinios, "no gods but the philosophers" is a very strange idea, indeed. I will have to talk with Leo about this.

Anonymous said...

In "Modernity and What Has Been Lost", a recent volume of essays drawn from a conference on Strauss held in Poland, Nathan Tarcov contributes an essay on "Philosophy as the Right Way of Life". Tarcov draws out some of the problems with Strauss's position that have been raised here. In particular, he concludes the essay by asking, given Strauss's conception of philosophy, how could philosophy bear on the life of non-philosophers? He doesn't answer his question.