Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Leo Strauss's Significant Silence about Aristotle's Biology

I cannot understand Leo Strauss's silence about Aristotle's biology.  In Natural Right and History, for example, there are many citations of Aristotle's writings, and yet there is only brief citation of his biological writing: on page 121, Strauss cites Aristotle's Parts of Animals, 642a28-30.  This citation is in the context of Strauss's account of how Socrates is said to have brought philosophy down from heaven to investigate the human things.  For Strauss this is a turn from philosophy as the study of nature to political philosophy as the study of natural right.  For Strauss, "the primary object of philosophy" is "the heavens and the heavenly bodies," as in the cosmological science of Plato's Timaeus (PAW, 16, 20; "Farabi's Plato," 364-65, 382-83, 390-91).  In making this assumption, Strauss ignores Aristotle's claims in his biological writings that the natural science of living beings--as opposed to physical cosmology--is "nearer to us and more akin to our nature," that Socrates was wrong to identify "nature" with astronomy, and that the cosmic teleology of Plato's Timaeus is indefensible (PA, 642a28-30, 644b22-46a5; Meta, 987a30-b20).  Strauss is aware of what's at issue here, because he wrote in a letter to Kojeve that "the difference between Plato and Aristotle is that Aristotle believes that biology, as a mediation between knowledge of the inanimate and knowledge of man, is available" (On Tyranny, 279).  Apparently, Strauss embraced a dualistic separation between the study of physics and cosmology, on the one hand, and the study of the human things, on the other; and thus he rejected Aristotle's view of biology as the bridge between the physical sciences and the human sciences.  But if this is so, it is strange that Strauss never explicitly defends this position by indicating what he thought was wrong with Aristotle's biology.

In Natural Right and History, Strauss's silence about Aristotle's biology weakens the argument for natural right at crucial points where an appeal to Aristotelian biology would strengthen the argument.

For example, as I have indicated in many posts, Strauss's claim at the beginning of his book that the teleology of natural right depends on the science of the heavens ignores Aristotle's argument for a purely biological teleology.

A second example is the passage where Strauss appeals to "an empirical science of man" based on man's natural sociality.  Strauss writes:
The phenomenon of admiration of human excellence cannot be explained on hedonistic or utilitarian grounds, except by means of ad hoc hypotheses.  These hypotheses lead to the assertion that all admiration is, at best, a kind of telescoped calculation of benefits for ourselves.  They are the outcome of a materialistic or crypto-materialistic view, which forces its holders to understand the higher as nothing but the effect of the lower, or which prevents them from considering the possibility that there are phenomena which are simply irreducible to their conditions, that there are phenomena that form a class by themselves.  The hypotheses in question are not conceived in the spirit of an empirical science of man.

Man is by nature a social being.  He is so constituted that he cannot live, or live well, except by living with others.  Since it is reason or speech that distinguishes him from the other animals, and speech is communication, man is social in a more radical sense than any other social animal: humanity itself is sociality.  Man refers himself to others, or rather he is referred to others, in every human act, regardless of whether that act is 'social' or 'antisocial.'  His sociality does not proceed, then, from a calculation of the pleasures which he expects from association, but he derives pleasure from association because he is by nature social.  Love, affection, friendship, pity, are as natural to him as concern with his own good.  It 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.  All members of the same species are akin to one another.  This natural kinship is deepened and transfigured in the case of man as a consequence of his radical sociality.  In the case of man the individual's concern with procreation is only a part of his concern with the preservation of the species. (128-29)
Strauss is drawing here from Aristotle's famous passage in Politics (1253a7-38) about man as being by nature the most political animal.  But Strauss does not indicate that for Aristotle this "empirical science of man" is part of the biological science of political animals, which Aristotle lays out in his biological writings (HA, 488a8-14, 553a26-54b26, 588b23-89a9, 614b19-26, 623b26-29a30).  If Strauss had done that, he might have raised the question as to whether modern Darwinian biology supports this.  And he might have noticed that in the Descent of Man, Darwin agrees with everything that is said in the above passage--the inadequacy of hedonistic utilitarianism in explaining the human admiration for excellence, the natural sociality of human beings, the importance of language in distinguishing human beings, the moral sentiments ("love, affection, friendship, pity"), and the naturalness of moral judgement as rooted in human nature.  Moreover, Strauss might have noticed that the modern idea of emergent evolution recognizes that the higher phenomena of the living world are irreducible to the lower phenomena of the physical world.

Both Aristotle and Darwin saw that the natural sociality of human beings was an extension of the first social bond between parents and offspring.  The affiliative bonding of parents and children is extended over ever-larger groups.  As compared with other animals, the extended period of offspring dependence on parental care and the complexity of the social learning during this period manifests the connection between human sociality and human rationality, in that human reason is adapted for navigating through the intricacies of human social life.  The Darwinian understanding of this link between rationality and sociality has been deepened by contemporary Darwinian scientists exploring the "social brain" hypothesis.  The fundamental conclusion of this Aristotelian and Darwinian understanding is that human beings are by nature the most rational animals because they are by nature the most political animals.

If "man's natural sociality" is "the basis of natural right in the narrow or strict sense of right," then Aristotelian and Darwinian biology supports natural right by explaining the biological nature of this natural sociality and the natural rationality to which it is tied.

A third example in Natural Right and History of where Strauss is unreasonably silent about Aristotle's biology is in the account of Locke.  Strauss assumes that Locke's political philosophy rejected the rule of nature in favor of the rule of convention.  This reading of Locke is mistaken, because it fails to recognize that in criticizing the Platonic naturalism of eternal essences, Locke is defending a biologically empirical science of natural history that points back to Aristotle and ahead to Darwin.

I have elaborated this last point in a previous post.

My general conclusion is that Aristotle helps us to see that the study of the human things and of the human quest for natural right is a biological study of human beings compared with other animals.

"In the works of nature, purpose and not accident is predominant; and the purpose or end for the sake of which those works have been constructed or formed has its place among what is beautiful.  If, however, there is anyone who holds that the study of animals is an unworthy pursuit, he ought to go further and hold the same opinion about the study of himself" (PA, 645a25-28).

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.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Birthday of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin

It's that time of the year when I traditionally observe the birthday of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, who were born on February 12, 1809.

I see at least six points of similarity between Darwin and Lincoln. (1) Both saw the universe as governed by natural laws, which included the natural laws for the evolution of life. (2) Both were accused of denying the Biblical doctrine of Creation. (3) Both spoke of God as First Cause. (4) Both appealed to the Bible as a source of moral teaching, even as they also appealed to a natural moral sense independent of Biblical religion. (5) Both abhorred slavery as immoral. (6) Both were moral realists.

I have elaborated each of these points in previous posts, some of which can be found here and here.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Strauss's Secret: "The Most Terrible Truth"

This semester, I am teaching a graduate seminar on Leo Strauss and the debate over Strauss and his legacy.  One of the crucial issues in that debate is whether Strauss was a secret writer.  

One of Strauss's most famous claims is that many of the classic writers of political philosophy have practiced an art of secret writing, by which they could convey an esoteric teaching that is unpopular or heterodox to a few careful readers who are philosophic, while conveying an exoteric teaching that is more popular or orthodox to the many careless readers who are unphilosophic.  This claim--elaborated in Strauss's Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952)--suggests the question of whether Strauss himself was a secret writer with a secret teaching.  If he was, then what's the big secret that would be so disturbing to most readers that it needs to be hidden from their view?

Some of Strauss's critics insist that his secret teaching was his promotion of fascist or Nazi ideas as an alternative to modern liberal democracy.  One piece of evidence for this is in a letter to Karl Lowith in May of 1933, in which he endorses "the principles of the right . . . fascist, authoritarian and imperial principles," and declares that "there is no reason to crawl to the cross, neither to the cross of liberalism, as long as somewhere in the world there is a glimmer of the spark of Roman thought."  Another piece of evidence is Strauss's interest in Carl Schmitt, who became a leading Nazi theoretician.  In his "Notes on Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political," Strauss seemed to endorse Schmitt's argument that liberalism had failed and that the bourgeois values of liberalism were decadent.  Strauss sought "a radical critique of liberalism" and a "horizon beyond liberalism," although he thought Schmitt had not gone far enough beyond liberalism.  When the students of Strauss speak about the "problem of the bourgeois," they seem to be following Schmitt in his scorn for bourgeois liberalism. 

In Strauss's lecture on "German Nihilism" in 1941, he traced this disdain for bourgeois life to Nietzsche as a formative influence on the "young nihilists" of Germany, and Strauss suggested his partial agreement with their "heroic nihilism": "I take it for granted that not everything to which the young nihilists objected, was unobjectionable, and that not every writer or speaker whom they despised, was respectable."  The Straussian allure of "heroic nihilism" is manifested in Harvey Mansfield's account of the "manly nihilism" of Nietzsche and Teddy Roosevelt, and in Mansfield's praise of George W. Bush's "one-man rule" in advancing the imperial power of the United States.

These and other lines of evidence have led people like William Altman (in The German Stranger) to charge that Strauss was a Jewish Nazi.  I am not yet convinced that there is enough evidence to support such an inflammatory accusation.

If Strauss had a big secret, I think, it's to be found elsewhere--in what he identified as "the most terrible truth."  When a writer has a deeply disturbing message that he wants to transmit to his philosophic readers while hiding it from his vulgar readers, Strauss suggested, there are various techniques available to him.  A writer can convey his own views through writing interpretive commentaries on the texts of other writers, so that only careful readers will notice his implicit endorsement of ideas attributed to others.  A writer can also hide his most unpopular views by putting them at the center of his text, because careless readers tend to pay more attention to the beginning and ending of what they read than to the middle.  In Strauss's Liberalism Ancient and Modern (1968), the central chapter--and the longest chapter--is a commentary on Lucretius's On the Nature of Things.  The exact center of the book is page 135, where Strauss concludes his study of Lucretius by explaining "the most terrible truth."

As I have indicated in some earlier posts, Strauss saw Lucretius as the exponent of "liberalism ancient and modern," because Lucretius was the one premodern thinker who came closest to modern liberal thought, particularly as based on modern natural science.  The central insight of Lucretius's argument is that "nothing lovable is eternal or sempiternal or deathless, or that the eternal is not lovable" (LAM, viii).  Lucretius proves the mortality of the world as a product of emergent evolution from atoms in motion: "the world is one of the many arrangements of atoms which in a very long time came about through the furious clashes of the blind atoms without the intervention of an ordering mind or a peaceful agreement agreement between the atoms; and once it has come about, it preserves itself for a long time" (123).  Since the world is not the product of an ordering mind, the world is not teleological, although it contains intelligent species--particularly, human beings--that have evolved to be teleological in their natural striving to satisfy their natural desires (125-26).  Since the world is not intelligently designed by a divinely providential mind, the world is indifferent to human beings and thus provides no cosmic support for human purposes.  Moreover, while the world is enduring, it is not eternal.  The world and everything in it--including the human species and all other species of life--will eventually collapse into the ceaseless motion of atoms that will then produce another world.  This is, Strauss believes, "the most terrible truth."  He writes:

"Lucretius does not speak here [in Book 6], as he did in the section on the thunderbolt, of men's tracing the terrifying phenomenon to the wrath of the gods; he only alludes to men's believing that the gods in their kindness vouch for the sempiternity of the world (601-602); on the other hand, he says explicitly that men 'fear to believe' that the world will die a natural death (565-567). It is this fear for the world, that is, for this world, for everything that is a man's own or his nation's own, which gives rise to the belief in gods and therewith also to fear of the gods; the fear of gods is not the fundamental fear. The fundamental fear gives rise in the first place to fear of that very fear, to fear of the most terrible truth." (LAM, 135)

In his footnote to this passage, Strauss cites Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1050b22-24, and On the Heaven, 270b1-16. Aristotle indicates that "eternal movement, if there be such" depends on the eternity of the heavens, and he identifies the eternity and divinity of the outermost heaven as an ancestral belief based on faith or trust (pistis).

Strauss hints that he agrees with this teaching of Lucretius. "Lucretius' poetry makes bright and sweet the obscure and sad findings of the Greeks, that is, of the philosophers" (83). "One may therefore say that philosophy is productive of the deepest pain. Man has to choose between peace of mind deriving from a pleasing delusion and peace of mind deriving from the unpleasing truth. Philosophy which, anticipating the collapse of the walls of the world, breaks through the walls of the world, abandons the attachment to the world; this abandonment is most painful" (85). "Religion thus appears to be a human invention which serves the purpose of counteracting the indifference of the whole to man's moral and political needs, for not all men are or can be philosophers" (100). (See also 88, 91, 95-96, 106, 119.)

Although Strauss often seems to defend religious belief by arguing that revelation cannot be refuted by reason, some of his readers have suspected that his big secret is his atheism. But even if he was an atheist, his writing on Lucretius suggests that atheism is only part of a deeper truth--"the most terrible truth" of the perishability of the world that is hidden by religious belief in an eternal order of intelligent design that cares about and for human beings.

This "most terrible truth" also illuminates what Strauss in the Introduction to Natural Right and History identified as "the problem of natural right." There he said that this problem is that "natural right in its classic form is connected with a teleological view of the universe" that seems to have been refuted by modern natural science. He explained: "From the point of view of Aristotle--and who could dare to claim to be a better judge in this matter than Aristotle?--the issue between the mechanical and the teleological conception of the universe is decided by the manner in which the problem of the heavens, the heavenly bodies, and their motion is solved" (7-8). This emphasis on cosmic teleology is reinforced by Strauss's claim that "the primary object of philosophy" is "the heavens and the heavenly bodies" (PAW, 20; "Farabi's Plato," 364-65, 382-83, 390-91).

But if Strauss agreed with Lucretius that the universe is neither eternal nor purposeful, then natural right cannot be defended unless it is rooted in the immanent teleology of human nature as an enduring but not eternal product of a natural evolutionary process.

As Strauss indicates, Aristotle spoke of the cosmology of eternal order as based largely on mythic stories and traditional religious beliefs. By contrast, Aristotle spoke of the biological study of living beings as closer to human life and more open to direct study. While Platonic cosmological science (like that of Timaeus) looks for the eternally fixed order of Being, biological science looks to the temporal flux of becoming. Empirical biology manifests an immanent teleology of enduring but not eternal species that does not depend on any cosmic teleology of eternal order.

Strauss even pushed Plato in this direction by denying that Plato believed in the eternal order of the Ideas or the immortality of the soul (PAW, 13-15; "Farabi's Plato," 364, 371, 376), which meant pushing Plato in the direction of Lucretius.

The culmination of all of this could be Nietzsche's Darwinian argument in Human, All Too Human that "everything has evolved," and that therefore there are no eternal truths, although modern science can satisfy the free-spirited philosopher in the quest for the "humble truths" of nature, which include the moral and political truths of evolved human nature.

In an earlier book, Nietzsche had warned against Darwinian evolution as a "deadly truth"--the phrase echoed in Strauss's "most terrible truth"--but Human, All Too Human shows how a "gay science" of evolution can affirm the intrinsic purposefulness of mortal human life in a mortal universe where everything evolves.  Thus does a seemingly deadly truth become life-affirming.

This is what I have tried to do in defending "Darwinian natural right," in providing a scientific grounding in evolved human nature for natural right.  And yet most of the Straussians scorn such an enterprise. 

In fact, most of the Straussians are silent about substantive arguments for the natural ground of natural right.  Does this silence point to the real Straussian secret--that the Straussians don't really believe in the truth of natural right, because they are nihilists, even if manly nihilists?

Sometimes the Straussians suggest that the only clear standard of natural right is the natural ranking of the philosophic life as the only truly good life, which includes a denigration of moral and political life as lacking any natural justification.  But even here the Straussians never lay out the substantive arguments necessary to prove the natural supremacy of the philosophic life.  Does this mean that they are so radically nihilistic that they regard even the choice to live a philosophic life as an arbitrary choice with no grounding in nature?

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