Friday, April 04, 2014

Leo Strauss and Liberal Democracy: Grant Havers's Response

Grant Havers has sent me the following response to my blog post on "The Attack on Leo Strauss from the Paleoconservative Historicists":

While reading Professor Arnhart’s bracing review of my book on Strauss, I kept recalling the oft-quoted words of John Adams: “Facts are stubborn things.” The gist of Arnhart’s critique of my book seems to be that my historicist argument that Straussianism is essentially wrong to teach that there is a universal human desire for liberal democracy (regardless of faith, history, or culture) is unpersuasive because my thesis does not fit into the theory of evolution that Arnhart has popularly applied to the history and content of political philosophy. In brief, I am apparently wrong to dismiss this ideology of democratic universalism that Straussians usually teach because I set up a false dichotomy between nature and history. My insistence that bourgeois Protestant Christianity is a necessary precondition for successful constitutional self-government apparently flies in the face of liberal regimes that are not rooted in this faith tradition. Arnhart asks the rhetorical question: “Isn’t this historical evidence for the universal appeal of liberalism, suggesting that liberalism really does conform to a universal human nature?” Strauss’s teaching that liberal democracy is the best regime for all human beings must be correct, then, according to Arnhart, because both nature and history support it.

        I find it curious that Arnhart does not give much attention to the reasons why I make this historicist argument. Most of my book develops the argument that Strauss and his many students erroneously tried to locate the true origins of liberal democracy in Greek political philosophy, particularly Plato and Aristotle. This reading of ancient political thought is crucial to the Straussian assumption, which Arnhart shares, that human beings by nature seek the best political regime. In the process, they can argue that democracy is the universally best regime for humanity. Yet I show in my book that this central assumption is false because the ancient Greek concept of democracy never allowed for certain virtues that are crucial to successful self-government: these include Christian virtues such as charity (love thy neighbor, and even one’s enemy, as one loves God) as well as humility and mercy. The best evidence for the unnatural status of these virtues is that the greatest Greek philosophers did not even account for them, based on their own philosophies of nature. This fact was sometimes recognized by Strauss himself, who, as I show in the last chapter of my book, rigorously distinguished the moral teachings of “Athens,” or Greek political philosophy, from “Jerusalem,” biblical revelation. Until the Christian Era, which includes early modernity, the assumption that charity is a necessary precondition for a peaceful, stable, and humane government was absent in the works of political philosophers who followed Plato and Aristotle. The ancient Greek tolerance of slavery, infanticide, and natural hierarchy held no place for the ethic of caritas, a fact that was well-known to social contract theorists such as Hobbes, Spinoza, and Locke. (It is also central to Hegel’s philosophy of history.) Only in a specific historical period, as opposed to nature, then, do we find evidence of a regime that rises above nature to embody, however imperfectly, an ethic of charity.

        I recount all these facts because of Arnhart’s Darwinian-Straussian thesis that it is false to set up a dichotomy between nature and history. Apparently, Christian charity is just as natural as the desire for liberal democracy, according to my reviewer. To anyone who is familiar with the biblical tradition, the first assumption is shocking in its naiveté. If it is natural for human beings to love each other, why does our sinful nature so regularly conflict with this natural moral desire? And, why did the social contractarians cited above similarly insist that there is neither charity nor government in the “state of nature,” the natural order of humanity, if charity is so closely aligned with our instincts? (I must confess to a strong Protestant bias here about the fallenness of humanity as well as the sheer difficulty that human beings have in practicing charity on a consistent basis.)

        Arnhart, of course, will have none of this. His first specific objection to my argument is that I too harshly limit the universal morality of Christianity to the particular foundation of liberal Protestantism, even though I also inconsistently claim that Christian charity has great influence beyond this modern foundation. How can a morality be universal without being historically universal as well? My answer to this objection is that Arnhart is confusing moral universalism with historical universalism. It is one thing to claim that all human beings ought to be charitable. It is quite another to assert that all traditions in history have practiced or even understood charity. Arnhart confuses the “ought” with the “is” here because his adherence to the theory of evolution forces him into this theoretical cul-de-sac: if charity is not historically universal (that is natural), then it cannot be naturally intelligible to all human beings. Evolutionism, then, is inadequate in trying to explain how charity emerged naturally. (Arnhart presumably does not agree with his fellow evolutionist Richard Dawkins that Christian charity is so unnatural that only “suckers” would practice this ethic.) Arnhart can always fall back on his view that human nature and human history are equally influential, but that tactic is just question-begging. Which is most influential?

Additionally, how does evolution, in Arnhart’s own words, explain how “some historical traditions show a better grasp of human nature than do other historical traditions”? How indeed would evolution explain the fact that Athens, one of the founding traditions of the West, lacked a concept of charity if the latter ethic is natural? Why did it take so long for this ethic to be applied to politics, culminating in the creation of modern self-government, if it is all so natural and universal? How can we avoid the fact that Jerusalem, not Athens, makes possible the historical rise of charity as it is applied to politics?

        Arnhart’s response to all this is that “many different religious and philosophical traditions have discovered the Golden Rule (charity) as a reasonable inference from natural human experience” and cites C. S. Lewis’s famous argument in defence of natural law as the “Tao” that all human beings understand by nature. This assertion, to say the least, requires evidence. Although all religions teach some concept of moral obligation, Christianity is unique in teaching that love and obligation extend to one’s enemy, a teaching that is consistent with the Christian emphasis on mercy and humility. Arnhart would have to show how the pagan texts of antiquity, including those of Plato and Aristotle, contain these virtues. (Arnhart’s fellow Straussian Harry Jaffa, in his Thomism and Aristotelianism [1952], brought out this distinction between Jerusalem and Athens with great insight.) In Plato’s famous dialogue on love, The Symposium, the reader will look in vain for any expression of love akin to charity. Confucianism, which at a superficial level teaches moral obligation towards other human beings, generally restricts this sense of duty to one’s family. (Christ’s famous condemnation of family-based love in Luke 14:26 would be shocking to a Confucian.) Since charity teaches the love of both God and humanity, any religion or philosophy that dualistically opposes one to the other (either love God or humanity) is incompatible with Christian morality.

        I am not, of course, claiming that all Christians in history have adhered to this demanding ethic with perfect consistency. Arnhart is quite right to point out that abolitionists and slave-owners in the decades leading up to the American Civil War profoundly disagreed as to whether Scripture, including the Christian teaching on charity, opposed slavery or not. How, then, asks Arnhart, can I appeal to the Bible for guidance or claim that the Golden Rule was the foundation of Abraham Lincoln’s opposition to slavery when Americans on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line claimed to be good Christians? My answer, which I develop in detail in Lincoln and the Politics of Christian Love (2009), is that the 16th president never doubted that a true application of Christian charity was incompatible with slavery. Since no slave-owner would ever choose to be a slave, he could not justifiably enslave another human being. Yet Southern slave-owners sinfully and wilfully denied this moral truth even as they falsely projected onto the Bible a violently uncharitable rationale for slavery. Lincoln knew all too well that human beings were naturally inclined to enslave each other and to reject the “self-evident” nature of human equality. For this reason, he appealed to that most unnatural, yet humane, expressions of morality: charity.

        Arnhart nevertheless claims to have the facts on his side when he confidently recounts the “historical trend towards the spread of liberalism” around the world since the Enlightenment. (Ironically, this progressivist argument would not have sat well with Strauss, who absolutely opposed any appeal to the “march of progress” as a justification for a prudent politics.) He goes on to claim that many of these “liberal regimes are clearly not rooted in the historical tradition of liberal Protestant culture” such as Japan, Malaysia, and South Korea. These examples, however, do not exactly confirm his thesis since all three of these nations had some significant exposure to English or American ideals due to the influence of occupation, colonization, or war. What is shocking in this discussion is Arnhart’s deafening silence on the failure of liberal democracy to take root in most nations of the Middle East. If liberal democracy is so natural, then why has the Arab Spring become the Arab Winter? Could the grim oscillation between theocracy and dictatorship have anything to do with a distinct religious and historical tradition? And recent wars for democracy in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya have not exactly confirmed Arnhart’s optimistic view that all the peoples of the world are itching for constitutional government and the rule of law. But then again, history is full of inconvenient truths that do not fill well into ideological boxes.


Roger Sweeny said...

"the 16th president never doubted that a true application of Christian charity was incompatible with slavery. ... Yet Southern slave-owners sinfully and wilfully denied this moral truth even as they falsely projected onto the Bible a violently uncharitable rationale for slavery."

So it's not just "that bourgeois Protestant Christianity is a necessary precondition for successful constitutional self-government," it must be true bourgeois Protestant Christianity.

No doubt this is unfair but I can't help thinking of the people who reject the idea that Russia, China, etc. tell us anything about socialism. Because, you see, they aren't true socialism.

Nyte said...

A definition of 'charity and christian charity' would be helpful. So that one can understand whether it is existence in either philosophical tradition as currently understood or does it need some other frame.