Philosophy Political Philosophy Politics

Leo Strauss: Natural Right and History

Leo Strauss is a polarizing figure to some; those who have never read his works and indulge in wanton conspiracy theories assert he was some sort of closet fascist and the godfather to the neo-conservative movement in America. The accusations of Strauss as a war-mongering imperialist has been refuted by many scholars, so there is no reason to get into that question here. Instead, we shall focus on Strauss’ magnum opus: Natural Right & History.

Natural Right & History is one of the most illuminating and penetrating critiques of relativism, liberalism, and historicism ever penned. As such, it is a defense of authentic critical thinking, textual analysis, and a spirited defense of philosophy qua philosophy. At the heart of the work is the distinction between non-historicist philosophy and historicist philosophy and the implications of what this means for philosophy. As Friedrich Nietzsche said—and Strauss was a student of Nietzsche though Nietzsche is not commented on in this book—the end of history meant the end of philosophy. And Nietzsche, and his great successor Martin Heidegger (who is esoterically critiqued in this book), though nominally philosophers, were really the embodiment of the “end of philosophy” disposition.

The opening of Strauss’ magnificent book begins with a critique of Max Weber’s fact-value distinction and Martin Heidegger’s historical relativism. Part of Strauss’ assessment of the modern predicament, and the cause of our modern discontents, is that philosophy is dead. Philosophy has been overtaken by two principal forces that represent modernity: Science and History. Science is represented, here, by Weber’s fact-value distinction where facts are detached from values and therefore morality dissipates in the face of materialist science. And we see this today where many ethicists critique the emptiness of scientism as not being able to offer any concrete ethics; those scientists who assert that science can answer moral dilemmas have no idea what they’re talking about because science is not value-neutral, it is value-negating. Strauss’ critique of the fact-value distinction is to show the moral conundrum we face in this dualistic separationist mentality.

Strauss then turns to an esoteric criticism of Martin Heidegger. Heidegger goes unnamed throughout the book but Strauss’ critique of Heidegger’s radical historicism is extremely poignantly. In critiquing Weber and Heidegger, Strauss is critiquing the two wings of the modern project; one (scientism) being the embodied representative of the modern project, the other (relativistic historicism) the reaction against the modern project while still surrendering itself to modernity through its conception of History.

Heidegger’s Being and Time was a landmark work in philosophy that was the first truly postmodern and existential tome to deal with the end of metaphysics. Believing metaphysics to be dead, Heidegger turned to the question of being—ontology—and circumvented the failed ontologies which were tied to metaphysics. We might call this metaphysical-ontology, and that was espoused by the post-Socratic thinkers, namely Plato and Aristotle in the West whose philosophies then help to undergird “Roman Catholic social science” (Strauss, p. 2). Heidegger, in one sentence, argues that man is a historical animal—formed by history (past) and thrown into this historical world shaped by history (Geworfenheit) with the tendency to despair in his condition or overcome it by marrying himself to the deep roots (bodenständigkeit) of history and culture; this permits man his “dwelling.” Rather than man having a universal nature that he can embody, man find himself thrown into a world of relativized cultures shaped by the vicissitudes of history and the courageous man dwells in this historicity while the Heideggerian equivalent of the last man seeks to break free from this history to live a nauseating existence of insect-like work and consumption.

Strauss highlights, in his critique of Heideggerian historical relativism, that questions of morality, destiny, and man’s being remain unanswered. Moreover, Heidegger’s own radical Hegelianism is just an aesthetical and cultural relativism. It is a return, as Heidegger (and Nietzsche) intended, to the pre-Socratic world of multi-worlds (the multitude of various politeias) engaged in a sort of Darwinian conflict with each other. As city-states of the past, with their own gods, cults, and laws, collided with each, so too do the nations of the present, shaped by their own histories and laws, clash with one another. While Heidegger might have embraced this type of relativistic historicism to save plurality from the weight of universalist imperialism emanating out of the last-man impulse of liberalism, Strauss shows how Heidegger’s relativized historicism is no answer to the crisis of philosophy.

Thus, Strauss pivots to the crux of the book which is the second half of the work which deals with natural rights: classical and modern. Strauss’ reading of classical natural right deals with a new dialectic: The distinction between nature and convention. Pre-Socratic philosophy was conventionalist; there were different people with their different gods who had been handed down their ways by their local gods. Everything that pre-Socratic peoples enjoyed were purely by convention. (In Plato’s dialogues, the sophists are the noted defenders of this type of relativistic conventionalism.)

The birth of philosophy, as we know it—or more properly from the Straussian disposition, knew it—begins in this confrontation with conventionalism. Philosophy, through the birth of metaphysics, creates the idea of nature. Nature, by logical entailment, would be universal to all things that have a nature. While ancient Greek philosophy divided along Platonic (rationalist) and Aristotelian (empiricist) lines, both Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy affirmed the basic principles of nature.

This discovery of nature also coincides with the birth of classical political philosophy. Classical political philosophy, then, for Strauss is twofold. Traditionalist classical political philosophy is concerned with the metaphysical questions concerning the concept of the political. What is governance? What are the forms of governance? What are the deformations of the forms of governance? What is justice? What is virtue? What is duty? And so on. The second part of classical political philosophy, we might say modern political philosophy, is the attempt to avoid the slide into history and political science and, in examining political philosophies, draw out their metaphysical underpinnings and implications (particularly in the present age as Strauss does in his analysis of modern natural right which is not natural right at all).

Therefore, the discovery of nature and the birth of political philosophy concerned itself with good citizenship. Man, as Aristotle said, is a political animal. He has a home. He is a citizen of a polis. How can man, and the polis, achieve virtue?

The end result of classical political philosophy is the questioning of classical natural right. As Strauss overviews Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, St. Thomas, and Averroes, he shows how classical natural right concerned itself with the embodiment of “the hierarchic order of man’s natural constitution” (p. 127). Nature, as understood by the ancients, was necessarily hierarchal. This resolved the tension of plurality and universality by binding the two together: There is a universal nature to all men but there is a hierarchy of goods by which to choose from. Man’s position in the world, his vocation, determines how man bests embodies his nature. Thus, classical natural right embraces deontological ethics. Man has duties and obligations to others, first and foremost to his polis, his family, and his friends (cf. Cicero).

Virtue ethics, Strauss suggests, is the telos of nature and man’s constitution. While Roman Catholic teleology goes beyond this world to God, it is only Roman Catholic philosophy which preserved this spirit of ancient thought. Hence why Strauss suggests the division in non-historicist and historicist thought, between classical natural right and “modern natural right,” is occupied by the partisans of liberalism and the partisans of St. Thomas Aquinas (p. 7). Catholics and non-Catholic Aristotelians (particularly in the Islamic tradition) are really the only groups who still carry on the classical virtue-based ethics and understanding of the world.

What Strauss also says is that the formation of classical natural right lifted man up to higher ideals rather than indulge in the lowest common denominator. The classics rejection of Epicurean hedonism was a prime example of this. Man’s social nature is not best in hedonistic gatherings but in the city, in civic life which the Epicureans believed to be a waste of time.

Important to recognize is how there is no concept of “individual rights” in classical thought. There is duty. Man has duties and obligations to others. In these duties and obligations, in the relationships forged from these encounters and forged duties and obligations with others, freedom is found. (Freedom here is in the classical sense: Flourishing.)

The crisis of classical natural right begins with the rise of “modernity” with Niccolò Machiavelli who depreciates political philosophy into a political science knowable through the study of history (cf. Discourses on Livy), and Sir Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum and the rise of reductionist materialist “science.” Predating Hobbes by just over a century, it was Machiavelli, not Hobbes, who penned the first description of the “state of nature” to explain the trajectories of politeias, “These variations in governments arise among men by chance, for in the beginning of the world, when its inhabitants were few, they lived for a time scatted like the beasts; then as the generations multiplied they gathered together, and in order to better defend themselves, they began to consider carefully who among them was stronger and braver, and they made him their leader and obeyed him” (Discourses 1.2). Machiavelli represented the linchpin in the pivot back to pre-Socratic and sophistic thought; consider Machiavelli’s hypothesis concerning the formation of human societies with Thrasymachus and Hobbes.

Machiavelli was no celebrator of classical political thought. Machiavelli was the antithesis to classical political philosophy, the harbinger of its demise. Unlike Quinton Skinner, who has argued that Machiavelli falls into the civic republican camp much like Cicero, Strauss sees Machiavelli’s inversion of classical thought as returning to the combative and physicalist world of power represented by Romulus’ slaughter of Remus and displaying his libido dominandi over others (Romulus would be the one who was stronger and braver and by killing Remus proved himself to be the king-founder of Rome). In fact, Machiavelli’s celebration of Rome is precisely because it offered no constraints on man’s lust for domination—the only thing that matters in the materialist “reality” of life which calls all men into the game of domineering struggle and survival. Those who preach mercy and compassion are doomed to extinction.

Hobbes is both a challenger and inheritor of the Machiavellian revolution. On the one hand he accepts the materialist-only view of the world which negates virtue ethics and the constitutive hierarchy on which classical natural right depended. He too, famously, saw a world bleak and full of bloodshed. But unlike Machiavelli, who relished this call to struggle which showed the greatness of men, Hobbes sought to minimize this struggle as much as possible. Thus, the birth of liberalism. And Hobbes is a liberal, as Strauss makes unequivocally clear. If liberalism is the doctrine in which the state, or the body-politic, safeguards individual rights, “we must say the founder of liberalism was Hobbes” (p. 182).

But where Machiavelli failed to provide a system for a materialist philosophy to emerge, part of Hobbes’ project was to “guarantee the possibility of a materialistic or mechanistic philosophy” to emerge (p. 174). Since matter is all that there is, man has no image of God, no image of the form tying him back to the One. As such, man is nothing more than a body of matter in motion—as Hobbes maintained in Leviathan.

Hobbes, however, does insert a good where Machiavelli did not. This good is bodily pleasure, or the freedom from harm. And this freedom from harm becomes the true core of liberal philosophy (cf. Andrew Jason Cohen’s recent book Toleration and Freedom from Harm: Liberalism Reconceived for a book of political philosophy highlighting this). In the dog-eat-dog world of the state of nature man comes together to form the commonwealth to protect himself from violent harm and death so as to live a life of peaceable consumption. This is mandated, mechanically, by the newly understood law of nature which is self-preservation. Therefore, all peoples eventually develop, minimally, tribal systems of governance for their mutual protection. The more advanced peoples, through the instrumental application of material science (following Bacon) can be more effective and efficient in their bid for peaceable self-preservation free from bodily harm.

Modern natural right is a subversion of classical natural right. In fact, it is not natural right at all despite their corrupting use of the language of natural rights (especially Locke). This is the birth of individual rights. I, as an individual, have a right—not duty—to a life of peaceable consumption where my freedom is measured by my free choice of things. The state arises to guarantee me these rights. Ironically, that means that the more individual rights I acquire the larger and more powerful the state must become to safeguard and ensure these rights to me. In one fell swoop modern natural right (which is really a return to the politics of convention) overturned classical rights and deontological ethics.

Strauss, seemingly far ahead of the curve, also understood how the internal logic of liberalism mandates the “outlawry of war or the establishment of a world state” (p. 198). This is because the various polities that arose out of the state of nature still engage in the competition over scarce resources for themselves and their people. Conflict results from this, and conflict is bad. Man, not wanting to engage in conflict for fear of bodily harm, seeks peace and compromise. To avoid war between tribes and nations, the logic is unavoidable: We must either outlaw war (as the Kellogg-Brand Pact tried to do after the First World War) or establish a world state of some universal system of law that binds all peoples together to prevent conflict.

Turning his attention to Locke, Strauss demolishes the myth of Locke as antagonist to Hobbes. Rather, Strauss shows how clever language ploys distanced Locke from the Hobbesian worldview while still embodying Hobbesian philosophy. Any reader of the Two Treatises should know this. Locke, like Hobbes, agrees that the law of nature is self-preservation (which for Locke mandates the right to property which is the first task of government to safeguard). Like Hobbes, Locke also thinks the state of nature descends into a state of total war—the difference is the state of war is not the starting point of the state of nature which exists only in the atomistic individual; when individuals encounter each other in the state of nature the world of state of nature is shattered and forever changed in the encounter with other humans whereby the serene atomistic-individualist world of the state of nature descends into the state of war. To get out of this state of war, this state of conflict, men form governments. Locke too is a conventionalist, after all it was Locke who wrote in plain English that part of the task of government beyond safeguarding property rights was, “is bound to dispense justice, and to decide the rights of the subject, by promulgated standing laws, and known authorized judges” (Second Treatise, Ch. 11). I will not treat Locke’s “Right to Revolution” myth either, if the reader rereads that section closely what Locke is saying is not the perpetual to overthrow governments but the right to return to legitimate government which has been negating by a long train of abuses. By the way, “revolution” means “to return.” But back to Strauss.

Modern natural right, conventionalism, was challenged by the like of Rousseau who was, in turn, confronted by Edmund Burke (who also engaged in a critique of Hobbes and Locke). The “crisis of modern natural right” begins here. Rousseau felt that liberal vision was a hollow lie. Man was not happy in his current state but miserable. As Rousseau said, “Man was born free but is everywhere now in chains” (Social Contract, 1.1).

Strauss draws connections to Machiavelli insofar that Rousseau is not someone who wants to return to the classics either. He has “abandoned himself to modernity” (Strauss, p. 252). How? Rousseau was a radical individualist like the modern philosophes. He protested in the name of virtue on behalf of the individual. Not on behalf of others. Man was miserable not because he was alone—as the heirs of classical philosophy assert—but because he is in community. Community is not the nature condition of man. The natural constitution of man is himself. He lives for himself and by himself. The misery he finds himself in is the burden of conventionalism which binds him to other men he would rather separate and be free from. Freedom for Rousseau is freedom from harm like Hobbes and Locke, but it is principally the freedom from harm found in being bound to other men in civil society.

The task, then, of politics is to confront the structures of political power that make man’s life miserable. Thus, the destructive impetus of Rousseauian political thought which influenced the French Jacobins all the way down to the present-day postmodernists. Society is oppressive and shackling, man, to be free, needs to break the chains of servitude and community to be a truly free individual. Only when all men are returned to the state of nature, the state of independence and freedom from others, can it said that all men are truly free and equal.

Solidarity, for Rousseau, is not toward other people. Hence Rousseau is just as depersonalized as Hobbes and Locke are (read: modern). Solidarity comes in opposition to political structures and forms which make us miserable. Once the structure is destroyed that solidarity shared with another oppressed person vanishes as we are no longer oppressed, and we can depart and go on our merry-way living our independent lives as we please.

The way Rousseau advances his outlook is through his state of nature which rejects Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke. The state of nature is benign. Man is compassionate rather than warlike. In seeing the face of others man sees himself: Amour-propre. This is why man tolerates other men. He sees himself in the face of the other. Rousseau’s philosophy is radically atomistic and narcisstic bordering on solipsistic because in encounter others I’m not really encounters “others” but encounter myself in and through the other. Rousseau’s assault against Hobbes and Locke remains cut-off from classical natural right but also leads to a destruction of conventional rights: the traditions, customs, and laws of the politeia which are regarded as cruel, oppressive, and illegitimate.

Strauss finally turns his attention to an assessment of Edmund Burke. Strauss’ analysis of Burke may disturb Burkeans, but Strauss does a good job in highlighting the contradictions and conundrums in Burke’s thought and how Burke’s political outlook lends itself, perhaps unknowingly, to the Whig/Progressive disposition.  Burke’s criticism of the French Revolution was not premised on classical natural right, it was premised on conventionalism and historicism. Moreover, Burke’s Anglo-exceptionalism foreshadows Heidegger’s relativistic historicism.

It was bad for the Jacobins to overthrow the ancient customs and traditions of the French people because this cut the French off from their heritage and roots. Burke has nothing to say about the metaphysics, or even the morality, of the matter at hand. Burke’s outlook is tied to the discovery of History:

According to the classics, the best constitution is a contrivance of reason, i.e., of conscious activity or of planning on the part of an individual or of a few individuals. It is in accordance with nature, or it is a natural order, since it fulfils to the highest degree the requirements of the perfection of human nature, or since its structures imitates the pattern of nature. But it is not natural as regards the manner of its production: it is a work of design, planning, conscious making; it does not come into being by a natural process or by the imitation of natural process. The best constitution is directed toward a variety of ends which are linked with one another by nature in such a manner that one of these ends is the highest end; the best constitution is therefore directed particularly toward that single end which is by nature the highest. According to Burke, on the other hand, the best constitution is in accordance with nature or is natural also and primarily because it has come into being not through planning but through the imitation of natural process, i.e., because it has come into being without guiding reflection, continuously, slowly, not to say imperceptibly, ‘in a great length of time, and by a great variety of accidents’; all ‘new fancied and new fabricated republics’ are necessarily bad. The best constitution is therefore not ‘formed upon a regular plan or with any unity of design’ but directed toward the ‘greatest variety of ends’ (p. 314).

According to Strauss, the Burkean outlook, though parochial and local, is the product of History. The best constitution, which Burke considers to be the English constitution with all its conventional rights and duties acquired by the vicissitudes and cunning of history, are accidental. But it is an ever-progressing process. Hence how Burke ends up being subverted by progressivists and historicists. The best constitution is now, but the best constitution—assuming it isn’t cut off from history—is always now. Which is to say the best constitution is always in the future.

For Burke, classical natural right is problematic because it cuts itself off from history with metaphysics. Metaphysics is non-historical. It is a-historicist. Organic constitutional growth and inheritance is historical. It is the product of historical accidents, conflicts, and resolutions. This is what the English constitution, and the English parliamentary system of government, best embodies. The working out of the compromises of conflict to live a relatively comfortable and peaceful life free of constant struggle. Burke suddenly sounds much like Hobbes and Locke!

Burke, then, defends conventionalism over natural right through interpreting historical development. Thus, Burke can be said to be a sort of proto-Hegelian; reading the present constitutional formation as the byproduct of historical forces at work. Indeed, that is what Strauss concludes when he says Burke’s argumentation is “a preparation for Hegel” (p. 319). Burke identifies the good with ancestry, but in the context of historical development. Ancestral good was not the Good in-of-itself, but a baseline good that was subsequently built upon over generations. The Burkean disposition is suddenly similar to the Heideggerian one: historical relativism where best is what is best for a particular people given their particular histories assuming they are attached and dwell in their particular histories and all that that entails. To recover classical natural right, then, is impossible through Burke.

Strauss’ Natural Right and History is a towering work, a magnanimous work of political philosophy and textual interpretation. Students of the classics will undoubtedly gain new insight into Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero by reading Strauss. Likewise, students of modern philosophy will have their eyes opened to the true implications of classical liberal philosophy and how there is no meaningful separation between modern liberalism and classical liberalism; modern liberalism is the logical outcome of the principles set forth by the classical liberals amended for our industrialized and urbanized world.

Embedded in Strauss’ work is the critique of historicism and conventionalism. Man is miserable because he lives a deliberately meaningless life. There is no meaning to be found in a modern atheistic and hedonistic life of permissive consumerism and sex (bodily pleasure is the highest good in modern thought). There must be more to life than food and sex (and sex is made easier and more available now without worry of having children!).

To return to the fundamental questions of meaning, citizenship, and responsibility, entails a return to classical natural right. The problem, for Strauss, is how to achieve this. Strauss may or may not agree with the actual specificities of classical thought. What Strauss does assent to is that the ancients lived more meaningful lives because they were engaged in philosophy qua philosophy; the art of contemplation over the seminal questions of life and trying to embody those revelations or rationalizations into their lives. Philosophy, as Strauss shows, has practical applications and consequences.

The ancients set the bar high, something for men to strive for (perfection or divinization). The moderns set the bar low, something for men to indulge in (self-preservation and bodily stimulation). Philosophy teaches us how to think, and political philosophy teaches us how to think as citizens belonging to a community and in relationships with others; political science does not, as such, political science is the natural outcome of the lowest common denominator cause-effect mechanical worldview established by the moderns. Why is democracy the best form of government? Moderns seem unable to answer this, let alone think articulately about this question. This is why democracy will die. Moderns are incapable of submitting themselves to anything that demands sacrifice to maintain; for such sacrifice entails harm and harm is bad and a limitation on my freedom. And that is what Strauss feared. From the liberal saturation—mindless hedonism and uncritical thinking capabilities—citizens of liberal-democratic polities will consign themselves to defeat when confronted with a vigorous opponent entirely antithetical to their beliefs and system of government. Historicism cannot save the English constitution and polity that Burke so loved; historicism cannot save the American republic either. Moderns will merrily accept death if no one is sticking the knife into their body as they die alone in a warm bed with pillows, blankets, and three prepared meals for them provided by the state. That is the totalizing victory won by Hobbes and Locke. Liberalism cannot defend itself without a return to classical natural right.

Natural Right and History
Leo Strauss
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965; 1953; 336pp.


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