Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Leo Strauss and Natural Law: Locke and the Pursuit of Happiness

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS is, for an American, a given, a moral and political shibboleth. The "pursuit of happiness" has made it into one of our organic, institutional documents, to wit, the Declaration of Independence. There is, of course, a perfectly classical way to view the "pursuit of happiness." The "happiness" ethics, the eudaemonistic ethics of Aristotle and St. Thomas, with their objective basis, could easily inform us as to what the "pursuit of happiness" means, and all would be well. But Americans have taken the "pursuit of happiness" to mean something entirely different, something inherently subjective.* How much of this, if any, is Locke's fault?

It is difficult, of course, ever to answer such questions as the imposition of blame for ideas. No one can measure the human cost arising from bad ideas. Some of them are horrible. Ideas such as national socialism, communism, Maoism, antisemitism, radical Islam have horrible costs attached to them. Locke's ideas, we may be sure, had a human cost much, much lower than these vicious counterparts. But at least we can look into Locke's ideas of happiness and make an educated guess and what sort of moral cost, if nothing else, such ideas have.

For Locke, there was precious little in man that was innate. Certainly, no principle of natural law was innate. Locke rejected the notion of universal law: he saw "no rules of the law of nature 'which, as practical principles ought, do continue constantly to operate and influence all our actions without ceasing [and which] may be observed in all persons and all ages, steady and universal.'" Strauss, 226 (quoting Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding). The desire for happiness was an exception; for Locke, this desire was innate:

Nature . . . has put into man a desire of happiness, and an aversion to misery; these, indeed, are innate practical principles."

Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, I, iii, 3. This desire for happiness, and the pursuit of happiness to which it gives rise, is not the source of duty (as the case would be if it were "law"). It is, however, the source of right, and so, for Locke, "the desire for happiness and the pursuit of happiness have the character of an absolute right, a natural right." Strauss, 226. This coupling of Lockean aversion to an innate natural law with advancement of the notion of the innate desire as the source of right means, in short, that "[t]here is, then an innate natural right, while there is no innate natural duty. . . . Since the right of nature is innate, whereas the law of nature is not, the right of nature is more fundamental than the law of nature and is the foundation of the law of nature." Strauss, 226-27. There really is no law in a "state of nature," since in that state, "any man may do what he thinks fit." Strauss, 228 (citing Locke passim). This state of lawlessness, is of course, highly unpalatable, as it exposes man-in-a-state-of-nature to constant danger. He seeks peace so as to preserve his life so as to satisfy his desire for happiness and therefore contracts with his fellows for a State.
The contract of the individuals actually concerned with their self-preservation [and their pursuit of happiness built thereon]--not the contract of the fathers qua fathers or divine appoint or an end of man that is independent of the actual wills of all individuals--creates the whole power of society: "the supreme power in every commonwealth [is] but the joint power of every member of society."
Strauss, 228-29 (quoting Locke's Treatise).

One of the most notable features of Locke's doctrines is its emphasis on property rights. It is part of the Lockean trilogy: life, liberty, and estate or property. To that we shall turn to next in our last blog entry on the Straussian analysis of Locke. Again, Locke departs from any classical or Christian concept of natural law.
*On this issue, I heartily recommend Deal W. Hudson's Happiness and the Limits of Satisfaction (Boston: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996).

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