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.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Leo Strauss and Natural Right: Origins

NATURAL LAW OR RIGHT BEGINS WITH a "natural" understanding, not a "scientific" one. Wearing "scientific" blinders does what blinders do: it blinds the wearer to the 360 degrees of the world around him so that he may better concentrate on the narrow view before him. While there is some benefit to such tunnel vision--one is not distracted by the greater world around him--it remains what it is: tunnel vision. One will not see natural law or natural right if one has scientific tunnel vision. One must begin with human vision in its entirety. This is what Strauss calls "natural" understanding, a broad, "macro" look into reality, into nature, in particular when it comes to natural right, the nature of political life.

Natural right (which for Strauss appears to be a narrow subset of a broader natural law) is implicit in political life, which means it is not manifest and unavoidably present. It must be "discovered," sought and learned from the nature of things, in particular, political life. Natural right is learned, abstracted as it were, from political life. It was learned through philosophy, a philosophy which challenged the ways of the ancients and the way of the authorities. Like all philosophy, it began with a sense of wonder about political life, the nature of political life.

A prerequisite for understanding natural right is therefore an understanding of nature. "The idea of natural right must be unknown as long as the idea of nature is unknown." Strauss, 81. The process involved in the discovery of natural right is therefore philosophical, not fideistic. Strauss distinguishes rather brutally between divine positive law and natural right. The latter is a product of human thought, human endeavor, human inquisitiveness and wonder. It is apparent that the Old Testament is not a product of philosophy. The message comes to man manifestly in a different way: through revelation.
The Old Testament, whose basic premise may be said to the the implicit rejection of philosophy, does not know "nature": the Hebrew term for "nature" is unknown to the Bible . . . . There is, then, no knowledge of natural right as such in the Old Testament.
Strauss, 81. (Personally, I think Strauss paints too sharply. He ignores the Psalter and the Books of Wisdom, which suggest a sort of philosophical approach to reality, and appreciation of God's creation. Moreover, if the Old Testament were that explicit in rejecting philosophy, it would be hard to explain the amenability of the Old Testament to Greek philosophy engaged in, for example, by Philo of Alexandria or much later by Moses Maimonides. Nevertheless, it is unquestionable that the means involved in learning of man and God in the Old Testament is not in the main through intellectual wonder and application of reason, but revelation. There is a difference between Jerusalem and Athens. Later on, he ameliorates his position somewhat. See below.)

What is nature? Nature is not merely an aggregation of all phenomena. If so, one could sum up the separate positive sciences and know nature. But this is not what nature is. Nature is not a sum of phenomena. It divides phenomena. Nature is a solvent, or perhaps better, a filter that is applied to all phenomena. That is, the concept of nature divides some phenomena from other phenomena. "'Nature' is a term of distinction." Strauss, 82. It allows us to remove accretions that are not natural, that are conventional. It allows us, further, to remove habits or customs that are wrong, that are bad, and so distinguish from the customs or ways of men, those that are good and right.

"Nature" is the philosophical concept used to divide or distinguish particular, localized custom or ways from "paramount" customs or ways. "Paramount" customs or ways are both general or common and right. These customs or ways traverse all local groups and tribes, are general to humans as humans. Further, "nature" divides out the "paramount" customs or ways (those which are right), from customs or ways that are not right. "The discovery of nature consists precisely in the splitting-up of that totality into phenomena which are natural and phenomena which are not natural: 'nature' is a term of distinction."
--Leo Strauss

Because the ways or customs of people are so central to their life in common, their political life, it follows that these customs or ways were affected by two features: history (the tradition of the ancients) and authority. The former was a source of custom. The latter was a means for resolving dispute as to customs among a group. Thus, before the notion of philosophy could develop the notion of natural right, it had to break the hold, the monopoly as it were, of the ancients and of authority on political life. In other words, philosophy sought to appeal above and beyond mere tradition and authority. Ultimately, this appeal was to the reason in things, the nature of things.

Even now, the concept of "nature" has a predilection for what is old, for what is old is generally, but not necessarily, paramount or right custom. Men, in the main, are sound over time and in numbers. But it was prephilosophic life that equated or identified the good with the ancestral, and attributed to the ancestral a notion of supereminence, even an access to divinity that was denied their successors. Though philosophy broke this link as being a necessary link, there is still a strong, albeit not necessary correlation between what is old and what is good and right. Nevertheless, after philosophy came on the scene and advanced the notion of nature, particularly in regard to common life (natural right), there is no identity between the ancient and the right. This identity was broken, and man was freed from the weight of tradition, and, to the extent traditions did not accord with what was good and right, was offered a means to overcome these.
The primeval identification of the good with the ancestral is replaced by the fundamental distinction between the good and the ancestral; the quest for the right way or for the first things is the quest for the good as distinguished from the ancestral. It will prove to be the quest for what is good by nature as distinguished from what is good merely be convention.
Strauss, 86.

Similarly, philosophy questioned the role of authority in defining "The emergence of natural right presupposes, therefore, the doubt of authority."
--Leo Strauss
the paramount way based upon the nature of things. "The emergence of natural right presupposes, therefore, the doubt of authority." Strauss, 84. This is not say, that all authority is immediately suspect. Quite the opposite, there is frequently accommodation between philosophy and authority, especially that special authority that is derived from revelation.
This is not to deny that, once the idea of natural right has emerged and become a matter of course, it can easily be adjusted to the belief in the existence of divinely revealed law. We merely contend that the predominance of that belief prevents the emergence of the idea of natural right or makes the quest for natural right infinitely unimportant: if man knows by divine revelation what the right path is, he does not have to discover that path by his unassisted efforts.
Strauss, 85. This overwhelming predominance of revelation is the position taken, for example, by those Protestants who reject the natural law thinking (e.g., Calvin, Barth) and, especially in traditional Ash'arite Islam which rejects any notion of natural law, for all to them is divine positive law. There is no such thing as a "Shari'a" of nature, all is Shari'a of Allah as found in revealed sources.

In a footnote, Strauss elaborates on two parallel and complementary substrates of the notion of "nature." It is worth pausing to look at this. The first notion of nature, the Platonic, looks at nature as "the first things," τά πρῶτα, those things that are first, fundamental, foundational (nature as fire, earth, air, water). The second, Aristotelian and Stoic, looks at nature as the "way" or "custom," ἡ ὁδὸς. Strauss sees the notion of the "right way" or "paramount way" as being a link between these two concepts of nature as "first things" and nature as "way" or "custom." It is the fundamental, basic path which something should take as it progresses towards its end or fulfills its purpose.

Nature as "the first things" is therefore a fundamental aspect of nature. In Plato's dialogue between Megillus and the Athenian (the Laws), discussion is had about the fundamental Urstoff or "first things." It is these "first things," the fundamental Urstoff, ta prota, which Plato seems to equate with nature (physis). Laws 891c1-4; 892c2-7. So nature is the fundamental substrate, as it were, of all things. That which exists before the artificial accretions of convention or authority, which may either detract or complement from the "first thing" or nature.

The concept of nature also comprehends the concept of "way," and derivatively, "custom" in general, that is, nature as the "essential character of a thing or a group of things," the way things usually go. Strauss, 83, n. 3. This notion of nature as "the way," the Greek ὁδός (hodos), or the Latin via, is one especially advocated by Aristotle and the Stoics. Aristotle uses the notion of "the way" in his definition of nature in his Physics, as, for example, in 193b13-19. (ἔτι δ' ἡ φύσις ἡ λεγομένη ὡς γένεσις ὁδός ἐστιν εἰς φύσιν) ("We also speak of a thing's nature (physis) as being exhibited in the process of growth (hodos) by which its nature is attained). See also 194a27-30 and 199a9-10 (which Strauss cites) and Cicero's De natura deorum (On the Nature of the Gods), ii.57, 81 (nature as via progredientem). The word hodos or via means a path, way, road, even the course of things, the way they regularly go, such as the path of a river or the course of stars and planets. It evokes the notion of a journey, a voyage, a movement from a terminus a quo to a terminus ad quem, a beginning and an end, a final cause. Interestingly, it is the term adopted by the Christians, nay even Christ himself, to signify the path they ought to take: Christ is hē hodos, via, the way (John 14:6). For the Christian, then, Christ is the personification of nature, he is the nature of man become flesh as much as he is God become flesh, for he is truly man and truly God. He is therefore both the fulfillment of the law of nature and the law of Moses.

Citing to Moses Maimonides Guide of the Perplexed, i.71, 73, and Pascal's Pensées (Nos. 222, 233, 92), Strauss states cryptically: "When 'nature' is denied, 'custom' is restored to its original place." Strauss, 83 n. 3. It is not clear to me what he means except that if "nature" is denied, we are relegated from God as a God of reason to God as a God of arbitrary will. We fall from reason to raw will. Everything, then, would be based upon the convention of the Creator, and nothing is its own. And all thinking is worthless, because any effort to find a "way" or a "first thing" in what is nothing but arbitrary, capricious, disordered, irrational will, even if it is God's will, is in vain. It is more than vain. It is utterly foolish exercise. Philosophy disappears, and all we can do is unthinkingly be still and suffer God's inscrutable decrees, like a Russian serf the Czar's ukases, or the miserable Muslims whose only response is an unreasonable, irrational servile submission to the inscrutable, arbitrary Allah the questioning of whose will is not to be brooked. For a Christian, a thousand questions do not make one doubt (Newman). For the traditional Muslim any question is a doubt. All is authority. All is revealed custom. Philosophy and nature have been elbowed out. Man shrivels up from son to slave.

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