Thursday, July 07, 2011

The Straussian Critique--and Defense--of Thomas Aquinas (2): Strauss's Objections

Leo Strauss suggested at least eight objections to Thomas Aquinas's teaching on natural law.

As I set them out here, the first five are summarized in Natural Right and History at the end of the chapter on "Classic Natural Right," pages 163-64. The sixth objection is stated in Strauss's essay on "Natural Law," pages 137-38. The seventh and eighth objections are attributed to Machiavelli, but Strauss seems to endorse them.

(1) The first objection is the most fundamental: Thomas's natural law is not really natural law--that is, a law that is knowable to natural reason alone--because it depends upon belief in divine revelation. Thomas subordinates philosophic reason to religious faith. Instead of promoting the effort to understand things based on what we can observe for ourselves and demonstrate rationally, Thomas assumes that we must submit to the the unquestioned authority of religious texts and religious leaders claiming divine inspiration. He thus takes the side of revelation against reason, and thereby rejects the idea of natural right or natural law as a standard of right and wrong comprehensible to unassisted human reason.

(2) The second objection is that in thus relying on religious dogma, Thomas renders the natural law so inflexible that there is no room for prudence to exercise judgment in deciding what should be done in particular circumstances. "There is a universally valid hierarchy of ends," Strauss believed, "but there are no universally valid rules of action" (NRH, 162). Even if we can rank some objectives as universally higher than other objectives, we must recognize that in exceptional circumstances, objectives that are normally lower in rank than others can become more urgent. So, for example, in times of war or great emergencies, political leaders might have to rank the public safety of their political community as the highest objective. Thomas does not allow for such prudential flexibility, and that's why, Strauss suggested, that Montesquieu broke away from the Thomistic view of natural law to recover some reasonable latitude for statesmanship.

Illustrations of the inflexible absolutism of Thomas's natural law, Strauss claimed,would include the Catholic prohibition of divorce and artificial birth control. Prudence should allow us to see circumstances in which divorce and birth control are reasonable means for achieving the natural goods of life.

(3) A third objection from Strauss is that Thomas's natural law teaching assumes a harmony between natural right and civil society. This ignores the possibility--suggested by Plato--that the naturally best way of life might be philosophy, and the relentless activity of philosophers in questioning the opinions of their fellow citizens might conflict with the requirements of political society.

(4) A fourth objection is that Thomas's reliance on religious faith leads him to assume unreasonably that the natural law is universally promulgated to all human beings by a divinely implanted synderesis or conscience.

(5) Strauss's fifth objection is to Thomas's claim that natural human striving for happiness points beyond itself to a supernatural end. Strauss sees Thomas as agreeing with him that natural reason recognizes that intellectual virtue and moral virtue are the two natural ends of human life, that intellectual virtue is higher in dignity than moral virtue, and that intellectual virtue does not require moral virtue. But then Strauss sees Thomas as trying to overcome this problem by claiming that natural reason actually teaches us that the final end of human life is supernatural--eternal union with God in Heaven--and thus neither philosophic nor moral activity can satisfy human beings. This presumes that natural law must be fulfilled in divine law, which takes us back to what Strauss saw as the fundamental mistake in Thomas's natural law teaching--the denial of natural reason's sufficiency for human beings in order to promote human dependence on supernatural revelation.

(6) Strauss's sixth objection is that while natural right is a coherent idea, natural law is not, because the very term "natural law" is self-contradictory. The original Greek discovery of nature turned on the contrast between "nature" (physis) and "law" or "custom" (nomos). Consequently, the idea of "natural law" is confused, particularly because it suggests the necessity for a divine lawgiver, so that Thomas's natural law is actually divine positive law.

(7) As a seventh objection to Thomas's Christianity, Machiavelli argues that Christian humility and otherworldliness deprives people of the manly pride necessary for a healthy political life. Christians are not inclined to resist political tyranny and defend political liberty because they are taught not to care about the things of this world, and they are taught to love their enemies and thus to offer no resistance to evil. Such humble submissiveness allows evil to triumph. Strauss stated this Machiavellian teaching in a way that suggested he endorsed it.

(8) Similarly, Strauss seemed to accept another Machiavellian criticism of Christianity--the tendency of the Christian church to "pious cruelty," the tendency to a moral fanaticism in punishing those regarded as unbelievers, apostates, or heretics. The brutal violence of the Inquisition illustrated this tendency.

Thus, oddly enough, from this Machiavellian point of view, Christianity appears to promote opposing dispositions--either unreasonable timidity or unreasonable ferocity--both of which are contrary to the teachings of natural right and prudential judgment.

In my next post, I will summarize Tom West's replies to these objections before I offer my assessment of this debate.

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