Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Strauss on the Moral Man as a "Mutilated Human Being": Schaefer and Drury

One of the best responses to Shadia Drury's Political Ideas of Leo Strauss is David Schaefer's "Shadia Drury's Critique of Leo Strauss,"
which was published in the Political Science Reviewer.  As indicated in my previous posts, I have not seen any clear refutations of Drury's central argument--that while Strauss regarded the philosophic life as the only good life by nature, he saw the moral life as not good by nature, because morality depended on religious beliefs that were lies, even if noble lies.  As far as I can tell, Schaefer does not refute that argument.  On the contrary, he seems to implicitly agree with it.  This confirms Drury's observation--in her "Reply to My Critics" --that many of her Straussian critics actually agree with her interpretation of Strauss.

Drury quotes Strauss's claim that the "merely just or moral" man is a "mutilated human being" (NRH, 151).  Schaefer responds  to this in footnote by writing:
It is typical of Drury's mode of interpreting Strauss's books that she eliminates the qualifying phraseology of his account of the relation between intellectual and moral virtue for the sake of dramatic effect: she cites as evidence of the "extreme proportions" of "Strauss's contempt for the morally virtuous man" his description of "the just or moral man who is not also a philosopher as a 'mutilated human being'!" (105; exclamation point hers), when what Strauss says is that "From this point of view [apparently, that of the classical natural right thinkers], the man who is merely just or moral without being a philosopher appears as a mutilated human being.  It thus becomes a question whether the moral or just man who is not a philosopher is simply superior to the nonphilosophic 'erotic' man" (Natural Right and History, 151 [emphasis added]).  The reader must judge whether Drury's rendering is a faithful account of what Strauss said, or rather, as George Anastaplo suggests, a "mutila[tion]" of it ("Shadia Drury on Leo Strauss," VN 25); but it cannot be denied that Drury's mode of quoting Strauss is considerably less cautious than Strauss's mode of interpreting the texts on which he commented. (107)

Schaefer's point here is unclear.  Is he suggesting that in stating a view of "the natural right thinkers," Strauss is not endorsing that view himself?  Or is Schaefer saying that although the moral man might "appear" to be "mutilated," he really is not?   Or is Schaefer saying that Strauss is only raising this as a "question" without a clear answer from Strauss?

Here is the whole passage from Strauss:
This solution to the problem of justice obviously transcends the limits of political life.  It implies that the justice which is possible within the city, can be only imperfect or cannot be unquestionably good.  There are still other reasons which force men to seek beyond the political sphere for perfect justice or, more generally, for the life that is truly according to nature.  It is not possible here to do more than barely to indicate these reasons.  In the first place, the wise do not desire to rule; they must therefore be compelled to rule.  They must be compelled because their whole life is devoted to the pursuit of something which is absolutely higher in dignity than any human things--the unchangeable truth.  And it appears to be against nature that the lower should be preferred to the higher.  If striving for knowledge of the eternal truth is the ultimate end of man, justice and moral virtue in general can be fully legitimated only by the fact that they are required for the sake of the ultimate end or that they are conditions of the philosophic life.  From this point of view the man who is merely just or moral without being a philosopher appears as a mutilated human being.  It thus becomes a question whether the moral or just man who is not a philosopher is simply superior to the nonphilosophic "erotic" man. (NRH, 151)

This is part of Strauss's commentary on "classic natural right."  Drury's primary principle for interpreting Strauss's teaching is that given his professed acceptance of what is taught by the classic philosophers of natural right (especially, Plato, Aristotle, and Xenophon), whenever Strauss clearly states a teaching of these philosophers, he is stating his own teaching.  If one accepts this principle--and I haven't noticed that any of Drury's Straussian critics have denied it--then this passage just quoted looks like a rather clear statement of Strauss's position.  (In the "Preface to the 7th Impression [1971]" of Natural Right and History, Strauss wrote: "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.")

I grant that there is some possibly qualifying language in this passage--"if," "appears," and so on.  Nevertheless, this does seem to be a clear affirmation of philosophy as "the ultimate end of man," so that justice and moral virtue have worth only in securing "conditions of the philosophic life."

Moreover, in his lecture on  "Reason and Revelation" (1948), which was not published until 2006, Strauss clearly seems to be speaking for himself when he declares that "philosophy is essentially the preserve of the very few individuals who are by nature fit for philosophy," that philosophy is the only happy life, that the great majority of human beings must be guided by "noble lies," and that all nonphilosophic lives are "forms of human misery, however splendid" or lives of "despair disguised by delusion" (Heinrich Meier, 2006, 146-47).

And while Schaefer often seems to be denying Drury's claim that Strauss sees moral life as a "mutilated" existence, Schaefer actually endorses this interpretation.  For example, Schaefer writes: "From the perspective of philosophy, it may be that religious claims regarding the afterlife, a God who vindicates justice, etc., are pleasing or noble 'delusions' rather than demonstrable truths; and that such beliefs reflect the need of most human beings for consolation as well as moral fortifications in the face of the terrifying aspects of the human condition" (102).  (See also pp. 86-87, 95-96, 98-99, 106, 109, 123-24.)  Unlike the philosophic few, most human beings--the merely moral human beings--cannot face the "terrible truth" about the moral indifference of the universe, and therefore they need the noble lies of religion to support their moral order.

I have argued for a Darwinian grounding of natural right in evolved human nature, which is related to what Strauss says about how "moral distinctions" could be grounded in "human nature, as distinguished from nature in general" (NRH, 94).  Although he does not elaborate the point, Schaefer points in the same direction by citing the same passage, and by citing James Q. Wilson's Moral Sense as indicating how "morality has a foundation in human nature" in so far as we can identify a natural "moral sense" shaped by human evolution (86, 107-110, 122). 

Strauss left this opening for Darwinian natural right.  He didn't develop it, however, because he didn't give much attention to the Scottish moral sense tradition (especially in the works of David Hume and Adam Smith), and he didn't indicate how this appeal to the natural moral sense or moral sentiments was given an evolutionary explanation by Darwin.  Strauss did, however, identify Darwinian science as being on the side of reason in the reason-revelation debate, particularly in his 1948 lecture. 

As I have argued many times, Darwinian natural right recognizes the philosophic life as a naturally good life, because philosophy or science satisfies the natural desire for intellectual understanding, but Darwinian natural right also recognizes the moral life as a naturally good life, because morality satisfies a broad range of natural desires for social bonding and justice as reciprocity.

Oddly enough, Strauss never lays out the argumentation that would prove his claim that the philosophic life is the only life that is good by nature.  As Schaefer indicates, Strauss does point to the arguments for the supremacy of the contemplative life in Book 10 of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.  But, as I have indicated in some previous posts, those arguments are remarkably dubious, and they contradict Aristotle's arguments in Books 8-9 for a more inclusive conception of the human good, centered on friendship, that would embrace a wide range of moral and intellectual goods.  Darwinian natural right would take that more inclusive view of the generic goods of life as satisfying the 20 natural desires of evolved human nature.

The Straussian alternative to Darwinian natural right--the alternative taken by many of Strauss's students--is to deny that there is any natural grounding for morality or politics, and thus to embrace a moral nihilism in which moral order is an artificial construction based on noble lies that serve to secure the life of the philosophic few.  Such a view supports the tyranny of philosophers.


Roger Sweeny said...

Such a view supports the tyranny of philosophers.

You act like that's a bug, not a feature.

Anonymous said...


I have not read Drury, but based on your discussion she is wrong about Strauss. Drury contends that, for Strauss, the moral and just man who is not a philosopher is a mutilated human being. Drury grounds her contention on the principle that whenever Strauss states a teaching of classic philosophers of natural right (especially Plato, Aristotle, and Xenophon), he is actually stating his own teaching. The most glaring problem with this principle is that the teachings of Plato, Aristotle, and Xenophon are not identical. In the chapter in NRH from which the controversial passage is taken, Strauss distinguishes three types of classic natural right teachings – Socratic-Platonic, Aristotelian, and Thomistic (NRH, 146). Because there are differences between the Socratic-Platonic and Aristotelian teaching, it is impossible to simply identify Strauss’s own view with the classic philosophers of natural right.

The passage at issue is from Strauss’s discussion of the Socratic-Platonic teaching. After completing this discussion, Strauss turns to Aristotle (NRH, 156). According to Aristotle, Strauss writes, there is no fundamental disproportion between natural right and the needs of political society (Id.). Strauss further states:
In this, as well as in many other respects, Aristotle opposes the divine madness of Plato and, by anticipation, the paradoxes of the Stoics, in the spirit of his unrivaled sobriety. A right which necessarily transcends political society, he gives us to understand, cannot be the right natural to man, who is by nature a political animal. Plato never discusses any subject—be it the city or the heavens or numbers—without keeping in view the elementary Socratic question, "What is the right way of life ? '' And the simply right way of life proves to be the philosophic life. Plato eventually defines natural right with direct reference to the fact that the only life which is simply just is the life of the philosopher. Aristotle, on the other hand, treats each of the various levels of beings, and hence especially every level of human life, on its own terms. (Id.)

Strauss also says that, according to Aristotle, “the most fully developed form of natural right is that which obtains among fellow-citizens; only among fellow-citizens do the relations which are the subject matter of right or justice reach their greatest density and, indeed, their full growth” (Id., 157).

Accordingly, even if one assumes that for Plato the merely just or moral man appears as a mutilated human being, the same does not seem to hold for Aristotle. If, according to Strauss, Plato and Aristotle do not hold the same views, one cannot argue that Strauss is setting forth his own teaching whenever he discusses the teaching of classic philosophers of natural right; although different classic natural right teachings share common elements, classic natural right is not monolithic.

We further note that Strauss makes many statements in the chapter in NRH on classic natural right that contradict the idea that the moral and just man appears as a mutilated human being. For example, Strauss writes that “[i]t is man’s natural sociality that is the basis of natural right in the narrow or strict sense of right. Because man is by nature social, the perfection of his nature includes the social virtue par excellence, justice; justice and right are natural” (Id., 129). Strauss also contends that man’s awareness of his freedom “is accompanied by a sacred awe, by

Anonymous said...


a kind of divination that not everything is permitted” (Id., 130). Restraint is therefore natural to man (Id.). These seem to be elements that the classic natural right teachings share, as Strauss sets them forth early in the chapter, before he discusses the differences between the Socratic-Platonic and Aristotelian teachings. Nothing in NRH indicates that Strauss prefers Socratic-Platonic over Aristotelian natural right, but it is not a stretch to suggest that Strauss agreed with the common elements of these teachings. According to these common elements, justice is natural and there are no grounds for claiming that a just and moral man is a mutilated human being.

If we consider other works of Strauss, we find the Socratic-Platonic and Aristotelian natural right teachings again distinguished. For example, in The City And Man, Strauss observes that among “people of deficient breeding” there may be “men of great power of persuasion who question the goodness of moral virtue. It is therefore not sufficient to know what justice, magnanimity and the other virtues are and to be moved by their beauty; one must show that they are good” (CM, 26). (We note that, to support this observation, Strauss cites passages from The Republic and Nicomachean Ethics.) Strauss goes on to discuss how Aristotle’s procedure for showing that these virtues are good differs from that of Plato. Strauss writes that for Aristotle, there are two separate and almost independent natural ends of man—philosophy and social life. Each of these ends has its own virtues. For Aristotle, philosophy or theoretical understanding is the highest end and “does not require moral virtue as moral virtue, i.e., just and noble deeds choiceworththy for their own sake” (CM, 27). Theoretical understanding cannot be achieved “without actions resembling moral actions proper, but the actions in question are intended by the philosopher as mere means toward his end” (Id.). The moral virtues, on the other hand, concern man’s social life, but they are not mere means for social order. Instead, they are ends in themselves. “The moral virtues cannot be understood as being for the sake of the city since the city must be understood as being for the sake of the practice of moral virtue” (Id.).

Strauss contrasts Aristotle’s understanding of moral virtue with that of Plato: “Aristotle is the founder of political science because he is the discoverer of moral virtue. For Plato, what Aristotle calls moral virtue is a kind of halfway house between political or vulgar virtue which is in the service of bodily well-being (of self-preservation or peace) and genuine virtue, which, to say the least, animates only the philosophers as philosophers” (Id.).

In sum, Drury is wrong to simply equate Strauss’s own teaching with the passage in NRH at issue regarding a mutilated human being. At a minimum, the subject passage is talking about Plato, not Aristotle, and NRH does not state that Strauss agrees with Plato rather than Aristotle. Further, it does not even appear that the passage is talking about Plato’s view. According to Strauss, moral virtue for Plato is a “halfway house.” In other words, it is higher than political or vulgar virtue but lower than the virtue of the philosopher.

What point of view, then, is Strauss talking about when he writes in NRH that “[f]rom this point of view, the man who is merely just or moral without being a philosopher appears as a mutilated human being”? Strauss is discussing here the viewpoint of a person whose life is “devoted to the pursuit of something which is absolutely higher in dignity than any human things – the unchangeable truth” (NRH, 151). To an attentive reader, the distinction between the human things and the unchangeable truth will call to mind what Strauss says about the founding

Anonymous said...


of political philosophy in the first few pages of the chapter on classic natural right. There, Strauss writes that it is often thought that Socrates founded political philosophy by turning away “from the study of nature” and limiting “his investigations to human things” (Id., 120). That understanding, argues Strauss, is incorrect. In fact, Socrates’ “turn to the study of human things” was based on “a new approach to the understanding of all things” (Id., 122). The new approach favored “the study of the human things as such . . . ” (Id.). Socrates seems to have regarded this change as a return to sobriety from the madness of his predecessors (Id., 123).

Socrates, unlike his predecessors, studies the human things because they are the key to comprehending the unchangeable truth. To understand the whole “means no longer primarily to discover the roots out of which the completed whole . . . has grown, or to discover the cause which has transformed the chaos into the cosmos . . . , but to understand the unity that is revealed in the manifest articulation of the completed whole. (Id.). “This view makes possible, and it favors in particular, the study of the human things as such.” (Id.)

The philosophers who preceded Socrates (the pre-Socratics) denigrated the human things in their search for the unchangeable truth. It is from their point of view that the man who is merely just or moral appears as a mutilated human being. Since Strauss never identifies his own views with those of the pre-Socratics, the passage at issue regarding the mutilated human being is not a statement of Strauss’s own teaching. Instead, it is the point of view of philosophy before it turned to the study of the human things.

Additional evidence that the passage at issue is referring to the pre-Socratics is contained in What Is Political Philosophy? There, Strauss discusses the “almost overwhelming difficulty which had to be overcome before philosophers could devote any serious attention to political things, to human things” (WIPP, 92). Strauss explains that philosophers distinguished the human things from the divine or natural things, and that “the latter were considered absolutely superior in dignity to the former.” (Id.) Strauss notes that the philosophers, left to themselves, would not return to the cave of political life but would remain outside, in the blessed island that is the “contemplation of the truth” (Id.) Similarly, in his lecture on the problem of Socrates, Strauss writes that the “recognition by philosophy of the fact that the human race is worthy of some seriousness is the origin of political philosophy. . . “ (The Rebirth Of Classical Political Rationalism, 126). Strauss further notes that, for this recognition to be philosophic, “the political things, the merely human things” must be “of decisive importance for understanding nature as a whole.” (Id.)

According to Strauss, the philosophers who did not consider the human things to be of inferior dignity were Socrates and Aristotle. It is true that neither Socrates or Aristotle considered justice or morality to be the highest thing. But it is also true that Socrates and Aristotle defended justice against the view of the pre-Socratics, who thought that justice existed only by convention. If one wants to understand Strauss’s view of classic natural right, one must go beyond the surface, although the surface is a good place to start.

Larry Arnhart said...

Strauss seems to be speaking for himself in his lecture on "Reason and Revelation" (1948), when he writes:

"Philosophy is essentially the preserve of the very few individuals who are by nature fit for philosophy. The radical distinction between the wise and the vulgar is essential to the original concept of philosophy. The idea that philosophy as such could become the element of human life is wholly alien to all pre-modern thought. . . . 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. The moral life as moral life is not the philosophic life: for the philosopher, morality is nothing but the condition or the by-product of philosophizing, and not something valuable in itself. Philosophy is not only trans-social and trans-religious, but trans-moral as well. Philosophy asserts tht man has ultimately no choice but that between philosophy and despair disguised by delusion; only through philosophy is man enabled to look reality in its stern face without losing his humanity."

Anonymous said...

Professor Arnhart, surely you know what "as such" means. Don't be a hack.