Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Strauss and Darwinian Natural Right: Responses to Catherine Zuckert and Richard Hassing

Catherine Zuckert and Richard Hassing are the two discussants for my APSA panel this Friday.  They have sent me written comments on the papers for the panel.  Here is my response.


In commenting on my paper—“Darwinian Liberalism Solves the Straussian Problems of Natural Right”—Catherine Zuckert says that I have misread and misstated some of Leo Strauss’s most important claims about three topics--natural human desires, the reason/revelation debate, and esoteric writing.  She also briefly questions my support for Nietzsche’s position in his middle writings as superior to his position in his later writings.  I will respond to each of these four points.

Natural Desires

Zuckert writes:

Arnhart maintains that what he calls “Darwinian liberalism” can and does provide us with a standard of good based on the immanent teleology of emergent human nature, which he goes on to describe in terms of 20 desires.  He does not seem to notice, as any reader of Plato’s Protagoras would, that some of these desires seem to conflict with others—courage is the primary example of a virtue that does not align itself easily with the animal attraction to pleasure and aversion to pain.  Nor does he address the difference between pleasure and the good, upon which Plato, Aristotle, and Strauss insist.  He solves in quotes the problem of natural right by defining it differently than Strauss did.  For Strauss the problem of natural right is “solved,” so to speak, by identifying philosophy as the way of life that is good for human beings by nature.

I have been persuaded by Aristotle that “the good is whatever is desirable for its own sake” (Rhetoric, 1362a22; NE, 1113a10, 1139a36-b6).  In his biological studies, Aristotle saw that in their voluntary activities, animals move to satisfy their desires in the light of their information about opportunities and threats in their particular circumstances (On the Movement of Animals).  This does not mean that the good is whatever an animal happens to desire at any moment, because an animal can mistakenly desire what in fact is not truly desirable.  Furthermore, what is desirable differs for each kind of animal, because each species has its own species-typical range of desires.  What is desirable also differs for different individuals with different natural temperaments and propensities.  Human beings have a distinctive range of natural desires, and they are unique in their capacity for deliberate choice in choosing to intelligently manage their desires for the fullest and harmonious satisfaction of their desires over a whole life, which requires prudence in judging what is desirable for particular individuals in particular circumstances.

Strauss suggests this thought when he says that for natural right, “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” (NRH, 95).  In the footnote to this passage, Strauss cites Cicero’s claim that “almost all” classical philosophers accepted this notion that prudence must judge what is in harmony with the primary natural desires instinctive to human beings (De finibus, 2.33, 5.17).

Zuckert says that for Strauss, “the problem of natural right is ‘solved,’ so to speak, by identifying philosophy as the way of life that is good for human beings by nature.”  Then, at the end of her comments, she says that Strauss and I disagree about the “definition of the human good by nature,” because while I identify this with “the satisfaction of 20 some desires,” Strauss identifies this with “the dignity of the human mind.”

I agree that the philosophic life is good for human beings by nature, because it satisfies the natural desire for intellectual understanding.  I disagree, however, with the claim that the philosophic life is the only good human life by nature, and therefore, as Strauss says, “there are no gods but the philosophers,” and “the man who is merely just or moral without being a philosopher appears as a mutilated human being,” who lives a life of “human misery” and “despair disguised as delusion” (NRH, 151; “Reason and Revelation,” 147, 163). 

I agree with Shadia Drury that this core Straussian teaching is both false and dangerous.  It is false because it denies the natural goodness of those many human lives that are not devoted to philosophy—moral, religious, and political lives. It is dangerous because it teaches those who think they are the true philosophers living the only naturally good life that they can rule over all other human beings by natural right.

I agree with Strauss that “philosophy is essentially the preserve of the very few individuals who are by nature fit for philosophy,” because they are animated by the “natural desire” to know (“Reason and Revelation,” 146, 149; “Progress or Return?,” 122).  But Strauss never offered any proof that this was the only good human life by nature—that other human lives with different rankings of natural desires could not be good by nature.  Strauss said that there must be a “pre-philosophic proof” that the philosophic life is the only right way of life, and that this proof must be confirmed by “an analysis of human nature” (“Reason and Revelation,” 146-47).  But Strauss never provided this “pre-philosophic proof” or the “analysis of human nature” that would confirm it.

A Darwinian scientific study of human nature can show that there is a range of at least 20 natural human desires that constitute the natural goods of life, which includes goods such as family life, social ranking, politics, property, friendship, religious understanding, and intellectual understanding.  The generic standard for a good human life will include all or most of these human goods to some degree.  But the ranking of goods—so that one good is stressed more than the others—depends upon the temperament and circumstances of individuals.  The philosophic life is best for Socrates, but not for those who lack the natural inclinations and capacities of Socratic individuals.

Consequently, the best social order is one that allows human beings the freedom in their families and voluntary associations to develop the moral and intellectual virtues necessary for pursuing the full range of naturally good human lives.  Darwinian liberalism embraces the liberal social order as doing this most successfully.  Even those who agree with Strauss that the philosophic life is the best life by nature should recognize the liberal social order as best, because philosophy has flourished in those “comparatively liberal” orders such as fourth and fifth century Athens (PAW, 33).  Socrates would not have lived a good life in Sparta, and Strauss would not have lived a good life in Nazi Germany.

An important part of the freedom secured in a liberal order is the open public debate over whether the natural desire for religious understanding should rank higher than the natural desire for intellectual understanding, which is the conflict between reason and revelation.

Reason and Revelation

Zuckert writes:

Arnhart also mistakes Strauss’s argument why reason cannot refute revelation.  It is not the “brute” fact of some people claiming to have had a revelation (which may, after all, have been an illusion); it is the incapacity of human reason thus far to give a complete account of the whole that would exclude the possibility of the existence of the God of Scripture.

Strauss writes:

There cannot be any evidence in favor of revelation but the fact of revelation as known through faith.  Yet this means that for those who do not have the experience of faith, there is no shred of evidence in favor of faith; the unbelieving man has not the slightest reason for doubting his unbelief; revelation is nothing but a factum brutum; the unbeliever can live in true happiness without paying the slightest attention to the claim of revelation. (“Reason and Revelation,” 142)

Yes, as Zuckert indicates, the unbeliever can say that “the fact of revelation” is “an illusion,” but to say this, the unbeliever must assume that a complete account of the whole would exclude the possibility of revelation, and therefore any putative fact of revelation is really an illusion.  Since that complete account of the whole has not yet been attained, and is probably unattainable, the unbeliever cannot rationally refute the fact of revelation.

Although the Darwinian liberalism that emerged in Victorian England did not settle this dispute between reason and revelation, it did promote the open public debate over reason and revelation as expressed in the conflict between evolutionary science and Christian creationism.  This allowed human beings—even the great multitude of human beings—to deliberately choose whether or not to rank the natural desire for religious understanding as higher than the natural desire for intellectual understanding. 

This showed the success of the Liberal Enlightenment in achieving its goal—“a time when, as a result of the progress of popular education, practically complete freedom of speech would be possible, or—to exaggerate for purposes of clarification—to a time when no one would suffer any harm from hearing any truth” (PAW, 33-34).  This seemed to contravene Strauss’s teaching that philosophers must always be esoteric in hiding their skeptical questioning of revelation and other authoritative opinions.  But then Zuckert says that I have misinterpreted Strauss’s account of esotericism.


She writes:

Arnhart gives an incomplete and therefore inaccurate account of Strauss’s argument for the ongoing necessity of esoteric speech and writing by ignoring the third and most fundamental reason Strauss gives for it: it is not possible to convey the truth of things by merely stating it.  People will not understand the truth if they have not thought about the problem themselves.  The most a text can do, therefore, is to provoke them to think.

Here she is alluding to Arthur Melzer’s distinctions between three kinds of reasons for esoteric writing.  Defensive esotericism is esoteric writing that defends philosophers from persecution.  Protective esotericism is esoteric writing that protects non-philosophic readers from being harmed by dangerous ideas.  Pedagogical esotericism is esoteric writing that teaches potentially philosophic readers how to think for themselves in the search for truth.  She seems to be saying that a liberal social order can eliminate the need for defensive and protective esotericism by promoting freedom of thought and speech, so that the philosophic quest for truth is no longer harmful in its subversion of social order based on unexamined opinion.  But this does not eliminate the “ongoing necessity” for pedagogical esotericism, in which philosophic writers create puzzles, so that in solving the puzzles, their philosophic readers learn how to think for themselves.

Is she suggesting that Strauss himself saw the “ongoing necessity” that he had to write esoterically, but only for the sake of pedagogical esotericism, and not for the sake of defensive or protective esotericism?  This seems to be what she says in The Truth About Leo Strauss, where she says that Strauss’s writing shows “pedagogical reserve” in saying less than what he thinks, but not true esotericism in saying other than what he thinks (136-37).  But if that is so, if Strauss saw no necessity in a liberal social order for defensive or protective esotericism, doesn’t that indicate that the premodern philosophers were wrong in believing “that public communication of the philosophic or scientific truth was impossible or undesirable, not only for the time being but for all time,” because in a liberal society there is no deadly conflict between philosophy and the city? 

That’s the point I make in my paper about how Darwinian liberalism in Victorian England promoted a largely open society with such freedom of thought and speech that esoteric writing and speaking were unnecessary and undesirable.  One can also see this in the Darwinian liberalism of Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human.


Zuckert writes: “Arnhart’s embrace of the middle Nietzsche as a supporter of modern science and liberal democracy raises the obvious question of why Nietzsche did not stick with this position but moved on.”

Nietzsche’s friend Lou Salomé offered the best answer to this question: In his middle writings, Nietzsche shows the intellectual clarity of a skeptical free thinker; but in his later writings, the religious longing from his youth reappears, and he is caught up in the atheistic religious frenzy which he affirms as his “Dionysian nature.”

The philosophic question here concerns not so much the motivation for Nietzsche’s switch from the Darwinian aristocratic liberalism of his middle period to the Dionysian aristocratic radicalism of his later period, but rather the question of which is rationally superior.  In my paper, I make some arguments for why his Darwinian aristocratic liberalism is closer to the truth about human existence than is his Dionysian aristocratic radicalism.

In Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche warns against the foolish and dangerous belief that some minds are “superhuman” (übermenschlich) as a “religious or half-religious superstition” (sec. 164).  In his later writings, of course, he is inspired by a vision of the superhuman artist-philosopher exercising will to power over all of humanity for a transvaluation of all values.  This later position of Nietzsche is likely to be more appealing to those who believe that “there are no gods but philosophers.”


Hassing asks whether my account of Darwinian natural right could support a cultural education in natural right that would counter the modern idea of “transformism—the radical malleability of nature and human nature in face of scientific and legal techne, and political power in the hands of progressive forces.”

My answer is yes.  In my lifetime, I have seen an amazing shift in academic education and popular culture from the predominance of the “blank slate” denial of human nature unconstrained by animal biology to a growing acceptance of evolved human nature. 

While my thinking about Darwinian natural right began in 1975 as I read Ed Wilson’s Sociobiology, there was an explosion of vehement scorn for Wilson’s claim that human social behavior was shaped by evolutionary nature.  A few years later, the early proponents of “evolutionary psychology” (such as Leda Cosmides and John Tooby) provoked the same kind of denunciation.  But then, over the past 25 years, these ideas about the evolutionary science of human nature as shaping human sociality, morality, and cognition have become widely accepted, although there is still serious resistance.  For example, evolutionary psychology has become a standard field of study within departments of psychology and anthropology, and even in some English departments, and in many philosophy departments.

In my own Department of Political Science at Northern Illinois University, we had “Politics and the Life Sciences” as a field of study at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.  We had some courses—such as my “Biopolitics and Human Nature”—that were cross-listed in both the political science and biology departments.  So I had both biology and political science majors who were fascinated by thinking about how the biological science of human nature might illuminate the great debates in political science and political philosophy.

The influence of this thinking in popular culture can be seen in the popularity of many best-selling books explaining human nature and human history through evolutionary science.  Steven Pinker’s books are an example of this.

The success of such thinking depends on escaping the false dichotomy of nature versus nurture or biology versus culture.  Increasingly, evolutionary theorists recognize that we need to explain animal behavior as shaped by at least three levels of explanation: natural history constrains but does not determine cultural history, and nature and culture jointly constrain but do not determine individual history.  One illustration of how this might work is in my paper “Biopolitical Science,” which explains Abraham Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 as manifesting all three levels of analysis in complex interaction: we need to see this as an event in the natural history of cooperation in the human species, in the cultural history of slavery in America, and in the individual history of Lincoln as a political actor in the Civil War.

Hassing asks whether the Darwinian natural right of sex differences, familial bonding, and parenting might provide natural standards for judging current debates over the proper social norms for gender identity, family life, and marriage.  My answer is yes, and I would point to how these debates often become debates over evolutionary human psychology. 

So, for example, in Thomas Aquinas’s reasoning about the natural law of marriage, we can see the influence of Aristotle’s biological works in support of Aquinas’s claim that “natural right is that which nature has taught all animals.”  And in the recent debates over same-sex marriage, we have seen people questioning whether same-sex marriage can serve the natural biological ends of marriage—conjugal bonding and parental care.  Proponents of same-sex marriage have to argue that same-sex couples can serve these biological ends, because same-sex couples can be good parents, and because even if they don’t become parents, a married same-sex couple can satisfy the natural desire for conjugal bonding.  It then becomes an empirical scientific question to see if same-sex marriages succeed or fail to satisfy these natural biological desires.

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