Natural Right and History (Walgreen Foundation Lectures) Revised ed. Edition
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As for what may have been philosophy’s false start, he suggests, given the difficulty as he presents it, that its attempt to replace opinions about the whole by knowledge of the whole presupposes that the whole is knowable, that is, intelligible. And this presupposition leads to the consequence that the whole as it is in itself is identified with the whole in so far as it is intelligible. Furthermore, to say that the whole is knowable or intelligible is tantamount to saying that the whole has a permanent structure or that the whole as such is unchangeable or always the same.
The presupposition is said to have its root in the dogmatic identification of “to be” in the highest sense with “to be always,” The dogmatic character of the basic premise of philosophy is said to have been revealed by the discovery of history or of the “historicity” of human life. Radical historicism compels us to realize the bearing of the fact that the very idea of natural right--prior to its analysis and subsequent contribution to grounding/correcting philosophy--presupposes the possibility of philosophy in the full and original meaning of the term (which is the attempt to replace opinions about the whole by knowledge of the whole). It compels us at the same time to realize the need for unbiased reconsideration of the most elementary premises whose validity is presupposed by philosophy.
As for such premises, the fundamental one mentioned elsewhere, and which is in agreement with the foregoing critique, was that something cannot come from nothing; that the world is eternal or governed by necessity. But the reason for this idea was never provided for in an adequate manner. How, then, could it be scientific? The question therefore arises as to whether the analysis of natural right addresses this difficulty insofar as its examination bears on the question of eternity, or the "first causes".
If so, we wonder what would become of the historicist position. Would historicism’s critique still hold, or would it not? For to the extent that historicism remains reluctant to look at natural right insofar as it believes it has no need to (because of natural right’s supposed dependence on a discredited philosophy which it presupposes), would it not be barred from understanding the possibility of a philosophy, i.e., philosophy properly understood, that does not rely on a fundamental premise (of eternity) that is dogmatic and therefore unphilosophic; that is instead made possible by means of an analysis of political things?
One last related curiosity. Natural right in its classic form is said to be connected with a teleological view of the universe. it is said as well that all natural beings have a natural end, a natural destiny, which determines what kind of operation is good for them; that in the case of man, reason is required for discerning these operations such that reason determines what is by nature right with ultimate regard to man’s natural end. This deductive understanding of man is called into question by Strauss on numerous occasions.
Suffice it to look to one such example, wherein Strauss remarked that the teleological view of the universe, of which the teleological view of man forms a part, would seem to have been destroyed by modern natural science. More strikingly, he adds that from the point of view of Aristotle, the issue between the mechanical and the teleological conception of the universe is decided by the manner in which the problem of the heavens, the heavenly bodies, and their motion is solved. Now in this respect, which from Aristotle’s own point of view was the decisive one, the issue seems to have been decided in favor of the nonteleological conception of the universe. Two opposite conclusions could be drawn from this momentous decision. According to one, the nonteleological conception of the universe must be followed up by a nonteleological conception of human life. But the alternative solution has prevailed. This means a nonteleological natural science and a teleological science of man has been accepted by todays defenders of natural right. This is the position which the modern followers of Thomas Aquinas, among others, are forced to take, a position which presupposes a break with the comprehensive view of Aristotle as well as that of Thomas Aquinas himself.
Now, if Aristotle’s view was comprehensive, and he settled in favor of a nonteleological view of the universe, doesn’t this mean, to our surprise, that he did not have a teleological (one might say deductive) view of man? And if not, then what could be made of the classic idea of natural right in that case? What is the nature of its “connection” to a teleological view of the universe, unless it be to examine the contradictory opinions of such a view (as are found in opinions about justice)? And if such opinions are contradictory, might that simply mean for the adherents of them that the whole is, in fact, unintelligible, or would they deny that this so? And in either case, how would the "right" to philosophize stand?
Strauss then concluded: The fundamental dilemma, in whose grip we are, is caused by the victory of modern natural science. An adequate solution to the problem of natural right cannot be found before this basic problem has been solved, i.e., before the problem with the classic teleological view of the universe is revisited with a view to its connection to the possibility of establishing natural right. Needless to say, the present lectures cannot deal with this problem. They will have to be limited to that aspect of the problem of natural right which can be clarified within the confines of the social sciences.
But did we not began our inquiry with that other perplexity, namely, that philosophy may or may not itself be grounded or made possible by the very idea of natural right—or was it the other way around?—and so by just these “social sciences”, as though the limited examination Strauss proposes in this book is actually the means by which we could, in fact, achieve what is at bottom sought by us?
Strauss' history of Western political philosophy can be summed up as follows. In the beginning there were the Greeks. They lived in their politeia (which Strauss translates as regime- see circa p.136 for his discussion). At first they believed that the laws of their particular cities were handed down from god(s) either directly or through divine inspiration. But then they began to reflect on the fact that their different politeia contradicted each other in their ideas of what was just, godly and noble.
Two things happened as a result. The ideas of nature and convention developed.
-Important methodological aside- As has been pointed out by Kennington and many other commentators, Strauss' use of the word `idea' (see. p. 123) is very particular and could be called Socratic-Platonic. In NRH, he uses the word very sparingly, and only to indicate the philosophical issues that are central to his story. The discussion of each chapter of the book and the book as a whole is built around these ideas. By my listing they are as follows: philosophy, history, natural right, science, nature, justice, man, best regime, man's perfection, the city, and virtue (I may have missed some of these). Now some of these, I would claim, Strauss sees as fundamental issues that have alternate solutions between which it is impossible to rationally decide and some of these issues are dead ends for philosophy. Part of the fun of reading Strauss is deciding which is which. And now back to our story.-
Out of these related ideas- convention and nature, the classical vision of political philosophy developed. Strauss covers this in his central chapters 3 and 4. There is only a few points I want to make about his presentation. He believes that the classical understanding of natural right and of man is based on " the hierarchic order of man's natural constitution" (127). Because our nature is hierachial, our ends are as well. Our highest end is the philosophy which is not a body of knowledge but a life of contemplation on the nature of the whole and on the nature of the parts.
Back in the political realm, the result is an investigation as to what constitutes the best regime- what form of politea encourages the development of gentlemen (from whom the philosophers will come-note the type of person that Socrates typically converse with in the Platonic dialogues) and the fostering of the virtues that will be necessary for both the city and the citizen (the virtues required for the philosopher are much more difficult to grasp). Note also that there is no discussion of individual rights here- it is of the duties of the citizen that we speak.
The beginning of the modern version of natural rights is almost an inversion of this view. Instead of focusing on what is highest (and therefore rarest) in human nature, the moderns (e.g., Hobbes) decided to focus on what was most common, indeed, what was universal in the hopes of actualizing their philosophies. Hobbes and Locke (according to Strauss) therefore focused on the passions, particularly on the desire for self-preservation. Strauss' reading of Hobbes and Locke is brilliant and is based on a very broad reading in their works. He sees modernity as undergoing three waves (see the essay, The Three Waves of Modernity, in Strauss' book An Introduction to Political Philosophy). The second wave, started by Rousseau, exposed the presumptions in the philosophies of Hobbes and Locke and ruthlessly critiques their philosophies on the basis of their own presumptions (see p. 269 of NRH for an example). Not discussed in NRH is how Nietzsche initiated the third wave by doing the same thing to Rousseau and his followers.
The third wave of modernity self-implodes in the philosophies of Heidegger (the radical historicist of the early chapters of NRH) and the vacuousness of positivism.
Thus my summary of NRH. Note that there is little content as to what natural right really is in Strauss' opinion. Strauss felt that we would get nowhere on understanding natural right unless we confronted the two major traditions in Western philosophy: historicist (modern) philosophy and nonhistoricist (ancient philosophy). His book is best seen as his attempt to reconsider the most elementary premises of those traditions (p. 32). After all of our careful reading, we are back at the beginning. Running as fast as we can to stay where we are. I am being glib.
I would love to have other readers of NRH comment on how I might improve my understanding of this book. I am nowhere near done with the book or the author. Like other reviewers, I disagree w/ Strauss in many of his fundamental presumptions (where is his argument for the soul?), I suspect many of his interpretations (although many are revelations) but I love learning from him and debating internally with him. He very rarely tells you what to think. He spends almost all of his time exploring the issue at hand in its full complexity. And he has driven me back to rereading Plato and Locke. Ain't nothing wrong with that.