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.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Leo Strauss and Natural Law: Even Edmund Burke's Infected

EDMUND BURKE IS LEO STRAUSS'S CLOSER. It is with this English Whig, this great figure of Kirkian Conservatives, that Leo Strauss rounds up his work entitled History and Natural Right. Unlike the dissolute Rousseau, who appears to have given himself to the modern Hobbesian and Lockean assumptions and extended them to their radical, revolutionary anti-social, anti-moral, and anti-rational conclusions, the politician Edmund Burke (1729-1797) attempted, perhaps more by force of habit than by absolute principle, a return to the classic notion of natural law. "Burke sided with Cicero and with with Suarez against Hobbes and against Rousseau." Strauss, 295. Burke had the good sense to view "the Parisian philosophers," and their "new morality," with skepticism, and to side instead with "the authors of sound antiquity." Strauss, 295 (quoting Burke). He scoffed at those who, like Rousseau and Hobbes before him, "pretend[ed] to have made discoveries in the terra australis of morality."* Strauss, 295 (quoting Burke).

Burke does, from time to time, adopt the prevailing language of these theorists that he excoriates, but only with a practical, ad hominem purpose. As Strauss observes, Burke "may be said to integrate these notions into a classical or Thomistic framework." Strauss, 296. Burke also speaks within the British constitutional mantle, as he "conceived of the British constitution in a spirit akin to that in which Cicero had conceived of the Roman polity." He was not reactionary--he was, after all a Whig, and a Whig's Whig at that, and may be said to be a classical liberal (he it was that said, to Marx's consternation, "The laws of commerce [meaning the laws of commerce per Adam Smith and other mercantilists] are the laws of Nature, and therefore the laws of God.")--but he was deeply conservative, indisputably reaching back behind the moral upstarts Hume, Rousseau, Locke, and Hobbes.

Edmund Burke

Though Burke did not write any single synthetic, theoretical work on moral philosophy or politics, his entire corpus--of political speeches, tracts, letters, monographs--all evince a practical yet principled man, deeply steeped in classical notions of natural moral law. It was this lodestar which made him so independent in thought and in mind to those of his contemporaries, and allowed him to favor the rights of American colonists and the Irish Catholics, and to oppose Warren Hastings and the French Revolution, against the views of many of his countrymen.

Against Hobbes and Rousseau, Burke clearly saw that man naturally tended toward civil cooperation, some sort of civil society. In the language of the times, he therefore distinguished between the Hobbesian and Rousseauian state of "rude nature," and wrote about a "true state of nature," which included the Aristotelian notion of man as a political animal. Strauss, 296. Against these two also, we find Burke advocating the concept that the "social contract" must include a "partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection." Strauss, 296 (quoting Burke). The social contract was, for Burke, "a contract in almost the same sense in which the whole providential order, 'the great primeval contract of eternal society," can be said to be a contract.'" Strauss, 296-97 (quoting Burke). Thus society and government have a role towards promoting the rule of virtue, of human perfection. These are not the words of a radical, or a libertine, of a Jacobin. Nor are they, however, the words of authoritarianism, a supporter of tyrannical government. There is therefore both a "Burke of Liberty" and a "Burke of Authority" as Winston Churchill denominated it, but yet it was "the same man pursuing the same ends, seeking the same ideals of society and Government, and defending them from assaults, now from one extreme, now from the other." (Winston Churchill, "Consistency in Politics" in Thoughts and Adventures (London: 1934), 40.) Burke was a man who sought to navigate, like a political Odysseus, through the Charybdis of Liberty and the Scylla of Authority.

Burke thought substance more important than process, and therefore did not view democracy as the cure-all, and this for the simple reason that democracy did not assure good government. And what man had a right to, was not necessarily participation in political process (a procedural right),** but the right to good government (which was a substantive right). As Strauss summarizes it:

For the judgment of the man, or the "the will of the man, and their interest, must very often differ." Political power or participation in political power does not belong to the rights of man, because men have a right to good government, and there is no necessary connection between good government and government by the many . . . .

Strauss, 297-98.

Ultimately, Burke appears to have rejected, but only partially, a Cartesian dualism in man, both in morals and in politics. Burke takes man as we find him, a complex, intricate, indivisible man, a composite of body and soul, a composite of individual in society. Burke therefore was deeply distrustful of any kind of political thinking that was pure theory, or pure "speculatism." He rejected a morals of geometry, an ethica de moro geometrico. Instead, Burke incarnated man in the here-and-now, as a countryman, as a family man, as one who was concerned with "one's own." Thus, politics was the practice of the particular, it "presupposes attachment to a particular . . . one's country, one's people, one's religious group, and the like." Strauss, 309. No political system is perfect; and all suffer from the weakness, habits, and foibles of men.

It may be, Strauss suggests, that Burke's distrust of theory, and his reliance on prudence and practical realities, led him to take an anti-theoretical stance. It may be, as Strauss states, that "Burke's opposition to modern 'rationalism' shifts almost insensibly into an opposition to 'rationalism' as such." Strauss, 313. Perhaps in his aversion to the theories of Rousseau and Hobbes, Burke himself stepped into a rejection of political theory in toto. Strauss suggests that perhaps Burke threw out the baby with the bath water: "Burke is not content with defending practical wisdom against the encroachments of theoretical science. He parts company with the Aristotelian tradition by disparaging theory and especially metaphysics. He uses "metaphysics" and "metaphysician" frequently in a derogatory sense." Strauss, 311. Burke does appear to reject the Aristotelian notion of a natural telos, an end in nature, and in human nature specifically. "There is," therefore, "a connection between [Burke's] strictures on metaphysics and the skeptical tendencies of his contemporaries Hume and Rousseau." Strauss, 312.

Homer nods. So does Burke. So do those who do not go beyond Burke.

To a certain extent, Burke suffers from the plight of all conservatives. What is it that one is trying to conserve? Sometimes, the very order one is trying to conserve is unconservative. There are times, it would seem, that a principled conservative would reject the immediate past, because the immediate past institutionalizes a rejection of an earlier, valid order. In other words, conservatism must not simply seek to preserve the cloth of order it has inherited, as the cloth of order may be sullied, stained, torn. One's patrimony, in other words, may need more than just polishing, it may need to be thrown away. If one were to inherit a library of pornography, is this a patrimony that ought to be preserved? A true conservative would have a standard that supersedes, though it might presume the importance of, his patrimony. Conservatism must sometimes seek to wash, to bleach, and to mend an inherited order that those before him ruined or soiled, or that the changing times have made untrue to a more fundamental principle of order. Burke, wed to the British constitution as he received it, appears, never to have gone beyond a first-phase conservatism. He was, for all his greatness, a bourgeois Whig. He was, and is, better than Rousseau, than Hobbes. He is not, for all that, the best.
[Burke] applied to the production of the sound political order what modern political economy had taught about the production of public prosperity: the common good is the product of activities which are not by themselves ordered toward the common good. Burke accepted the principle of modern political economy which is diametrically opposed to the classical principle: "the love of lucre," "this natural, this reasonable . . . principle," "is the grand cause of prosperity of all states." . . . [Burke's] intransigent opposition to the French Revolution must not blind us to the fact that, in opposing the French Revolution, he has recourse to the same fundamental principle which is at the bottom of the revolutionary theorems and which is alien to all earlier thought.
Strauss, 314-15 (quoting Burke). Burke, in Strauss's view, then is already infected with an incipient tendency toward "secularization" or "temporalization." Relative to Hobbes and to Rousseau, Burke is conservative. Relative to Aristotle, to Cicero, to Thomas Aquinas, to Suarez, to Richard Hooker, Burke is not. Burke has already swallowed the pill of modernism, of secularism.

*Terra australis means "southern land," and is a reference to the hypothesized continent in the southern hemisphere, also called terra australis incognita, or "unknown southern lands," in most maps between the 15th and 18th century based upon the unsupported speculations of Aristotle.
**Burke, however, "does not reject the view that all authority has its ultimate origin in the people or that the sovereign is ultimately the people . . . ." Strauss, 298. But Burke speaks less of "compacts" or "contracts," than he does of "constitutions," "custom," and "prescription."

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