Wednesday, January 21, 2015

On Holloway, "Strauss, Darwinism, and Natural Right"

Leo Strauss thought the crisis of natural right arose because the teleological view of the universe that supported classic natural right has apparently been refuted by modern natural science.  I have argued, however, that a Darwinian understanding of the immanent teleology of life, including human life, can resolve this crisis by supporting a Darwinian conception of natural right.  Carson Holloway has criticized my argument for failing to recognize that any conception of natural right depends on a  "religiously informed cosmic teleology" that is denied by Darwinian science.

In one of his papers--"Strauss, Darwinism, and Natural Right"--Holloway suggests that Strauss himself agreed with him on this.  This paper was published in The Human Person and a Culture of Freedom, edited by Peter Pagan Aguiar and Terese Auer (Catholic University of America Press, 2009), 106-129.  It can also be found online. 

Although I disagree with Holloway's general argument, I do think he has correctly pointed to a strange kind of religious or quasi-religious teleology in Strauss's writing about natural right.

Holloway accurately restates my claim that while modern natural science--and particularly Darwinian science--denies any cosmic teleology, it can affirm an immanent teleology that sustains natural right.  "That is, Darwinism demonstrates how a purposeless cosmos can give rise to purposeful beings, beings with an internal teleology from which we can derive natural standards of right" (108).  If we understand the human good as the desirable, and if we see that the evolutionary process has endowed human beings with at least 20 natural desires, then we can see the fullest and most harmonious satisfaction of those natural desires as a standard of natural right inherent in the teleology of human nature.

Holloway responds to this by suggesting that Strauss would not have accepted this as a resolution of the problem of natural right, because Strauss saw classic natural right as concerned with human excellence or perfection, which transcends the concern in Darwinian natural right with mere human decency or ordinary goodness.  What distinguishes human perfection from human decency is that while human decency is "anthropocentric," human perfection is "cosmocentric" (114).  "Humanism is not enough," according to Strauss, because to understand natural human perfection, we must look up to the "superhuman" and not down, as the Darwinian evolutionist does, to the "subhuman" origins of the human.  We must see, as Strauss says, that man is not "an accidental product of a blind evolution," but the result of a "process leading to man, culminating in man," and "directed toward man" (128).

In Natural Right and History, Strauss distinguishes American social science from Catholic social science in how they handle this issue: "Present-day American social science, as fare as it is not Roman Catholic social science, is dedicated to the proposition that all men are endowed by the evolutionary process or by a mysterious fate with many kinds of urges and aspirations, but certainly with no natural right" (NRH, 2). 

Holloway observes: "Strauss exempts Catholic social science from this difficulty presumably because it posits a cosmic hierarchy in light of which these various 'urges and aspirations' can be evaluated and a cosmic teleology in light of which they can be seen as products of an evolutionary process guided by a benevolent cosmic intelligence.  Darwinian naturalism, however, rejects such notions and is therefore left with only the (seemingly inadequate) fact of these various aspirations and their unintelligent origins" (118).  So, without the cosmic teleology guided by a "benevolent cosmic intelligence," Holloway argues, my Darwinian natural right as grounded on the natural desires of an evolved human nature has no way to rank those various and conflicting desires according to any natural standard of human perfection.

My first response to this is to point out that Holloway is completely silent about my emphasis on the need for prudence and habituation in organizing our often conflicting desires into a coherent pattern as conforming to our conception of a whole life well-lived (see Darwinian Natural Right, 23-24, 36-49).  He is also silent about my claim that while the generic goods of human life as set by the 20 natural desires is a universal standard for the human species, the ranking and organization of those generic goods requires prudence in judging how this can be done to conform to the nature of each individual.  The naturally good life for a man like Socrates, for whom the natural desire for intellectual understanding must be ranked at the top, is not the naturally best life for those who are not Socratic philosophers.

Apparently, Strauss disagreed with me here.  For he thought that the philosophic life of Socrates was the only naturally good life, and that all other lives--the merely moral lives of ordinary decency--were actually lives of misery and delusion.  Moreover, this ranking of the philosophic life as the only naturally good life was, according to Strauss, rooted in a transcendent cosmic order.

Holloway notes the "certain otherworldliness" in Strauss's "transcendent" conception of the philosopher as standing at the peak of a cosmic hierarchy (110-12).  But Holloway does not reflect on how strange this is. 

How can this "transcendent" conception be consistent with Strauss's denial of Platonic metaphysical dualism and his insistence that Plato was not a Platonist?  It is true that in some of the passages cited by Holloway, Strauss does seem to endorse the cosmology of the "Great Chain of Being" that dominated Western culture for two millennia through the influence of Plato's Timaeus.  But this seems to contradict Strauss's claim that this Platonic cosmology is Plato's exoteric teaching, not his esoteric teaching.

If there is a "benevolent cosmic intelligence," as Holloway indicates, would Strauss say that this is the philosopher?

In his 1948 lecture on "Reason and Revelation," Strauss has a dialogue between "the philosopher" and "the theologian."  Here is one passage:
"The philosopher: denies that human self-assertion and love of truth are incompatible.  For we have a selfish need for truth.  We need the eternal, the true eternal (Plato's doctrine of eros).  The kinship between philosophia and philotimialasting fame possible only through knowledge of the truth.  The most far-sighted selfishness transforms itself into, nay, reveals itself as, perfect unselfishness.
"The theologican: philosophy is self-deification; philosophy has its root in pride." 
 "The philosopher:  if we understand by God the most perfect being that is a person, there are no gods but the philosophers (Sophist in princ: theos tis elengktikos).  Poor gods?  Indeed, measured by imaginary standards. --As to "pride," who is more proud, he who says that his personal fate is of concern to the cause of the universe, or he who humbly admits that his fate is of no concern whatever to anyone but to himself and his few friends." (163)

 I don't think Holloway agrees that "there are no gods but philosophers."  Does this even make any sense at all?

Strauss's assertion here that philosophers are as gods reminds me of Nietzsche's warning in Human, All Too Human (sec. 164) that any belief that some minds are "superhuman" (ubermenschlich) is a "religious or half-religious superstition."  Of course, Nietzsche himself later in his life affirmed the philosopher as the Ubermensch; and that was the Nietzsche that attracted Strauss, who was completely silent about Nietzsche's evolutionary science and democratic liberalism in Human, All Too Human.

I will come back to this strange "otherworldly" Straussian conception of the philosophers as gods in my comments on Arthur Melzer's new book--Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing.

Strauss's "Reason and Revelation" lecture was first published in Heinrich Meier's Leo Strauss and the Theological-Political Problem (Cambridge University Press, 2006).  It can also be found online.

I have a previous post on this lecture, also here, where I note that Strauss puts Darwinian evolution on the side of philosophy as opposed to revelation.  I have written many posts over the years responding to Holloway and commenting on Strauss and the problem of natural right.  Here is one.

1 comment:

Mobius Trip said...

Wouldn’t an assessment of Strauss’ understanding of modern natural science be necessary to conclude that he was right or wrong? There is no doubt that he was well informed, but then he would have understood the Platonic distinction between knowledge and opinion.

I think your position on a teleology of life can be developed, while avoiding a “religiously informed cosmic teleology.” One needs an argument for a scientific ontology, in general, rather than a religious ontology. I have recently come to a similar conclusion about ontology, while struggling with the impact of Derrida. A view from this perspective asks if Derrida made a strategic decision to base his critique of the logos on Husserl rather than Anselm’s Ontological argument. I am not versed well enough to answer this question without significant research, but even if he didn’t, the result is the same: Anselm’s Ontology is as informative for science as it is for religion.