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.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Leo Strauss and Natural Law: The Hobbesian Path to Avernus

AVOIDANCE OF VIOLENT DEATH or self-preservation becomes the source of Hobbesian morality and the the root of Hobbesian justice. It also is the passion that compels man, who would rather be a solitary atom, to combine himself with others in society through compact. Man has no duties but those which come from the "fundamental and inalienable right of self preservation." Strauss, 181. Duty, for Hobbes, follows right. More precisely, duty is limited by the right to self-preservation, and so self-preservation trumps all duties. All duties become relative to this right:

There are, then, no absolute or unconditional duties; duties are binding only to the extent to which their performance does not endanger our self-preservation. Only the right of self-preservation is unconditional and absolute.

Strauss, 181. What this means is unsettling. Strauss puts the hammer on the nail's head: "By nature, there exists only a perfect right and no perfect duty. The law of nature, which formulates man's natural duties, is not a law, properly speaking." Strauss, 181. Hobbes has redefined natural law out of existence, and all of a sudden, it seems, people start talking of rights and become forgetful of duties. Liberalism raises its ugly head in a world where all there are only rights, where there is no natural law. Hobbes may therefore be called the father of liberalism:
If we may call liberalism that political doctrine which regards the fundamental political fact the rights, as distinguished from the duties, of man and which identifies the function of the state with the protection or the safeguarding of those rights, we must say that the founder of liberalism was Hobbes.
Strauss, 181-82. Similarly, we find in Hobbes the germ for the modern penchant for rights-talk, and its for duties-talk mutism:

The fundamental change from an orientation by natural duties to an orientation by natural rights finds its clearest and most telling expression in the teaching of Hobbes, who squarely made an unconditional natural right [self-preservation] the basis for all natural duties, the duties being therefore conditional. He is the classic and the founder of the specifically modern law doctrine.

Strauss, 182. Ah, with what facility did the Hobbesian passion-derived, natural right theory supplant the Thomistic reason-derived, natural duty theory in a massive social apostasy? Facilis descensus Averno. The descent to Averno is easy. The Gates of Hell are open wide. It is holding the line, nay, even more, it is the ascent to truth that is the labor, that is burdensome and hard.
Facilis descensus Averno;
noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis;
sed revocare gradum superasque evadere ad auras,
hoc opus, hic labor est.
(Virgil, Aeneid, VI.124 ff.) Less classically, perhaps, Strauss quotes the conservative Burke (Thoughts on French Affairs) and not Virgil as I have done:
"The little catechism of the rights of men is soon learned; and the inferences are in the passions." With regard to Hobbes's classic formulation, we add that the premises already are in the passions.
Strauss, 183. So Hobbes initiated a paradigm shift which clearly take mankind downhill: individual rights were now prior to social duty, and thus preceded the common good, whereas in the past individual rights followed social duty, and so came out of or derived from the common good. All of a sudden, people started talking about the "state of nature," and pitting it against the Aristotelian man who, by nature was political, social. More ominously was the shift in the use of the term "state of nature," which had referred to the fallen condition of man prior to grace, to the use of the term "state of nature" to refer to the condition of man prior to the State. Indeed, there may have been more method than madness to the use of the term, for we have through Hobbes the introduction of the secular salvation of man:

Prior to him [Hobbes], the term "state of nature" was at home in Christian theology rather than in political philosophy. The state of nature was distinguished especially from the state of grace, and its was subdivided into the state of pure nature and the state of fallen nature. Hobbes dropped the subdivision and replaced the state of grace by the state of civil society. He thus denied, if not the fact, at any rate the importance of the Fall and accordingly asserted that what was needed for remedying the deficiencies or the "inconveniences" of the state of nature is, not divine grace, but the right kind of human government.

Strauss, 184. Since for Hobbes self-preservation is the ultimate rule and ultimate source of rules, we find an interesting corollary comes with it. Whereas the natural law assumed the judgment of the wise, Hobbesian natural right assumed the judgment of everyman, including, so it seems the fool. Every man, even the most base, has an instinct for self-preservation, and so every man, regardless of wisdom, has the right to judge the right. "We may speak of a natural right of folly." Strauss, 186. Along with the democratization of judgment comes the emphasis on consent and will, rather than reason, as the basis of law.

As we shall see, the building of the natural moral law upon the right of self-preservation was to have important repercussions on the natural moral law.


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