Sunday, March 08, 2009

Shadia Drury on Aquinas's Betrayal of Natural Law

Shadia Drury is a professor of political philosophy at the University of Regina in Canada. She is best known for her criticisms of Leo Strauss, the Straussians, and their influence on American politics. A brief statement of her general attack on the Straussians can be found here.

Strauss and his students are commonly identified as critics of modern relativism and historicism who looked to premodern conceptions of "natural right" or "natural law" as providing enduring standards for morality and politics. But Drury argues that this is only the deceptive exoteric teaching of Straussianism. When one uncovers the esoteric teaching, one sees that the Straussians are actually secret atheists and Nietzschean nihilists who deny that there are any natural standards for morality or politics. But they see this nihilism as a deadly teaching that would corrupt human life for the multitude of human beings. Only the philosophic few are capable of facing up to the deadly truth of nihilism, and they are careful to promote the noble lies of religious belief and natural right for the many. The superiority of the Nietzschean philosophers as the creators of all values is the only enduring standard for the Straussians.

Against the secret nihilism of the Straussians, Drury argues that there really are some natural standards for morality and politics, which can be found in the tradition of natural law reasoning. But while she looks to Thomas Aquinas as providing the best formulation of this tradition, she is deeply suspicious of Aquinas's Christian account of natural law, because she sees in Aquinas's writing a religious fanaticism and an unhealthy asceticism that promotes theocratic tyranny and a gloomy denial of earthly life.

In her most recent book--Aquinas and Modernity: The Lost Promise of Natural Law (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008)--Drury lays out her reasoning for how Aquinas betrayed the promise of natural law and how that promise might finally be fulfilled by saving natural law from Aquinas's distortions.

I have written many posts on how my account of Darwinian natural right supports a reasonable version of natural law. Drury's position is similar to mine, although I stress more than she does the modern scientific grounding of natural law, and I think her polemical style of writing sometimes leads her to overstate her arguments.

The philosophic supporters of Aquinas over the last hundred years have praised him for reconciling faith and reason, for promoting a moderate view of politics that secures liberty, and for countering the life-denying attitude of Augustinian asceticism with a life-affirming endorsement of nature's goodness. Drury denies each of these claims.

While Aquinas appears to be defending human reason and the philosophic life as autonomous in a way that should not threaten biblical faith, Drury tries to show how Aquinas ultimately puts reason under the command of faith. Aquinas's fideism is evident, for example, in his praise of Abraham's irrational faith in God's command to kill his son Isaac. One can also see this in how Aquinas distorts Aristotle's teaching to conform to biblical theology. (Here Drury actually agrees with many of the Straussian commentators on Aquinas, who also stress the ways in which Aquinas must twist Aristotle's texts to fit into a biblical view of the world.)

Many of the modern defenders of Aquinas assert that his natural law reasoning supports a moderate political teaching about the need for limited government free from theocratic fanaticism. And yet, Drury argues, Aquinas actually makes clear that secular political power is subordinate to the ecclesiastical power of the Pope as directed to the highest ends--the eternal salvation of souls. That this supports theocratic tyranny is clear, Drury thinks, in Aquinas's endorsement of the Inquisition and the Crusades.

I agree with Drury that Aquinas does show a tyrannical fanaticism in his argument that the Pope has the authority to order the execution of heretics. Aquinas was a Dominican. Pope Gregory IX in 1233 gave the Dominicans the supreme authority over the Inquisition, which became for many centuries one of the most brutal exercises of tyranny in all of human history. Drury rightly criticizes Aquinas for endorsing the work of the Dominicans in the Inquisition.

But sometimes she overstates her case. She suggests that Aquinas argued for the forced conversion of Jews and Muslims to Christianity (60-64). But this is not exactly true. Aquinas said that compulsion could be properly used against heathens and Jews only to prevent their hindering the Christian faith--but not to compel their belief. Only heretics could be rightly compelled to keep the faith (see Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 10, aa. 8, 11; q. 11, a. 3). I agree with her, however, that Aquinas's support for compelling and even executing heretics manifested a tyrannical fanaticism contrary to justice and liberty. I also agree with her in lamenting that almost none of the modern scholarly supporters of Aquinas--with the exception of Josef Pieper--have faced up to Aquinas's defense of the Inquisition.

Against the tradition of the Inquisition, religious conservatives today should respect the modern Western tradition of religious liberty. In this, they follow the New Testament teaching of Christianity about rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's. After all, the Christians in the New Testament formed churches as voluntary associations of believers, and they never sought the coercive power of the state to enforce their religion. Paul stated a libertarian principle by which the Christians should enforce their religious norms on those who belonged to their churches, but should not act coercively against those outside the church. "For what is it to me to judge those outside? Is it not for you to judge those inside? But God is to judge those outside" (I Corinthians 5:12-13). This would allow churches to excommunicate heretics, but nothing more.

Aquinas is often praised for recognizing the natural goodness of life and thus steering away from the gloomy asceticism of the Augustinian tradition. But Drury correctly points out the many ways in which Aquinas continues the masochistic asceticism of Christianity. This is most evident in the scorn for sexual love and the elevation of celibacy. Underlying this attitude of self-abnegation is a tendency towards the Gnostic dualism of spirit and flesh, in which the natural goodness of human embodiment is denied. (As I have indicated in some previous posts, much of the Christian scorn for a Darwinian view of human nature comes from a Gnostic yearning to transcend the biological reality of the human body.)

Again, however, Drury occasionally overstates her point here. For example, she writes: "Aquinas claims that the man who loves his wife too much is an adulterer" (88). What Aquinas actually says is that "the man who is too ardent a lover of his wife acts counter to the good of marriage [procreation of children] if he use her indecently" (ST, II-II, q. 154, a. 8). The point here is not to condemn "the man who loves his wife too much," but to condemn the man who engages in non-reproductive sex with his wife. Still, I agree with Drury in seeing this as an unhealthy denial of the pleasures of sexual love within marriage.

Towards the end of her book, Drury lays out her reasoning for restoring the lost promise of natural law by basing it totally on reason and natural experience, without any necessary appeal to divine law or ecclesiastical authority. This would, she insists, provide an alternative to the relativism and conventionalism of much modern and postmodern thought today. While I can endorse most of what she says here, I think she doesn't go far enough in considering how modern science supports natural law by showing how it manifests evolved human nature.

At one point, in a dialogue between "Modernity" and "Aquinas," Drury has "Modernity" say: "I must admit that my love affair with science was a mistake," because she had looked to science for "secular salvation" (132).

I see no "secular salvation" in modern natural science. But I do see a rational account of nature and human nature rooted in ordinary human experience that should sustain a modern conception of natural law. Drury believes that "nature provides not only the raw materials but also the goals" for human life, and thus a modern natural law must be founded in a teleological conception of human nature (141, 146, 154, 162, 167). Although modern Darwinian science cannot support a cosmic teleology by which everything in the universe is directed to some cosmic end, it can support an immanent teleology by which living beings are directed to the ends of each species.

In explaining what he means by the "natural inclinations" or "natural instincts" underlying natural law, Aquinas repeatedly compares human beings to other animals who share some of the same inclinations as human beings. Quoting Ulpian, Aquinas declares that natural right is "that which nature has taught all animals."

Darwinian science and the evolutionary account of the natural moral sense allow us to provide a modern scientific foundation for this Aristotelian insight into the biological character of natural right.

Darwinian science can confirm the importance of religious belief as satisfying a natural desire for religious understanding. It can also confirm the social utility of religious communities in enforcing cooperative norms. And yet it also supports the need for religious liberty and the danger of theocratic power, because Darwinism recognizes the imperfections of human nature such that no human being can be trusted to exercise a presumed divine authority over other human beings.

On this blog, I have indicated my reasons for disagreeing with Leon Kass and other Straussians who scorn modern science as a threat to human morality and dignity. This should be another point where Drury and I are on the same side.

Drury has invited me to lecture at the University of Regina in October. Perhaps then we can discuss some of these issues.


John Farrell said...

I also agree with her in lamenting that almost none of the modern scholarly supporters of Aquinas--with the exception of Josef Pieper--have faced up to Aquinas's defense of the Inquisition.

Fascinating. Do you recall which of Pieper's works? I have several of his excellent books, and this does seem familiar to me.

Larry Arnhart said...

Pieper's GUIDE TO THOMAS AQUINAS, chapter 3.

John Farrell said...

Thanks. I would need to check, but it would not surprise me if the late Herbert McCabe also pointed out Aquinas' defense of the Inquisition as well, although I can't say for sure.

This is a fascinating topic, and I can't help thinking that a non-trivial percentage of the hierarchy in the Church is uneasy about evolution, precisely because they sense that, the more we learn about evolution, the more some re-thinking of natural law in the light of such information, is going to be called for. And it doesn't seem like something they're ready to do.

As one priest friend of mine quipped to me recently, "We need a new Aquinas."

Anonymous said...

Do you agree with Drury regarding Strauss - do you think he was a nihilist? And do you plan to speak with her about him?

Jaffa (whose nihilism would have to be very esoteric to say the least) certainly argues that Strauss was Socratic in his skepticism and far from dogmatically nihilistic.

FWIW I find the "biological" solution you have developed for the problem that (the lack of)cosmic teleology poses for ethics brilliant, comprehensive, and very compelling. And I agree that most Straussians'ambivalence towards it is short-sighted. Likely a result of not just the ancient/modern dichotomy, but specifically of the disdain for "the conquest of nature" inherent in science. Like Aristotle who would have been the "first to look throught the telescope" I suspect Strauss himself would have taken your writing very seriously - but who knows.