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.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Leo Strauss and Natural Law: Locke on Property and its Acquisition: Vice Turned Virtue

LOCKE'S DOCTRINE OF PROPERTY is central to his political teaching, and is something that distinguishes his teaching from his predecessors. It is important to grasp Locke's notions on property, for they are deeply revolutionary in spirit. They are anti-conservative, or at least they are contrary to the best thinking of the pagan philosophers and the highest thought of the Christian moral theologians, which is what real conservatism is all about: the first things. As Strauss concludes his analysis of Locke's doctrine on property:

Locke's teaching on property, and therewith his whole political philosophy, are revolutionary not only with respect to the biblical tradition but with regard to the philosophic tradition as well.

Strauss, 248. Again, Locke's doctrine of property purports to be a "natural law" doctrine, and doing so "it partakes of all the complexities" of Locke's doctrine of natural law which, at best, could be called a doctrine of quasi-natural law or something altogether different disguised as a natural law. But it also suffers from what Strauss calls a "peculiar difficulty." Strauss, 234. This "Locke's teaching on property, and therewith his whole political philosophy, are revolutionary not only with regard to biblical tradition but with regard to the philosophic tradition as well."
--Leo Strauss
difficulty arises out of Locke's theory which requires the transformation of a natural right to property (the "original law of nature") to a civil right to property, wherein the former essentially ceases to be valid. For Locke, the natural right to property arises from the natural right to self-preservation and the desire for happiness, i.e., the pursuit of happiness. Immediately, man in a state of nature confronts the problem of others of his kind with the same natural right who are in competition with him in taking the things from the earth. Neither begging nor stealing property is right; the only title to right to property arises from a man's labor as he appropriates the goods of nature. It is the mixture of labor and the goods of the earth which, combined, give rise to the right to property. "Labor is the only title to property which is in accordance with natural right." Strauss, 236.

The only limit to acquisition, that is, to title to property, is that the property acquired must remain useful to man. "Man may not appropriate things which through his appropriating them would cease to be useful." Strauss, 237. If a kind of property is not subject to waste (gold, silver, diamonds), then a man can acquire as much as his heart desires. On the other hand, he ought not acquire more perishable commodities that he can use without waste. Therefore, man is entitled to more nuts (which are less perishable) than, say, plums (which are perishable). Waste is for Locke, the mortal sin of property ownership, not covetousness, greed, or selfishness. As Strauss puts it: "The terrors of the natural law no longer strike the covetous, but the waster." Strauss, 237. In acquiring property, man "does not have to think of other human beings." Strauss, 237. Put proverbially, Strauss labels Locke's thought thus: Chacun pour soi et Dieu pour tous.* The fancy French may be roughly and vulgarly translated as "Screw everybody else." And this attitude Locke justified whether man, in a state of nature, had plenty or lived in want.

Labor, however, created title to property only under the "original law of nature" pertaining to property. In a state of civil society, "labor no longer creates a sufficient title to property," Strauss, 240, though it retains its role as "the origin of value or of all wealth." Strauss, 243. So the worker who yearns to labor so as to acquire not only what he needs, but what he wants, is "a greater benefactor of mankind than those who give alms to the poor." Strauss, 243. Amor habendi, amor nummi is greater than amor proximi.** Indeed, there appears to be no limitations to the acquisition of goods in civil society, other, perhaps, than the property must be acquired in a manner allowed by positive law. Locke seems, nay, does, turn the classical and Christian teaching on property entirely on its head.

How does Locke justify the right to untrammeled acquisition of property to the neglect of the fundamental law of law of neighbor? Locke was not foolish enough to emancipate acquisitiveness from moral law by arguing that it was a virtue per se. "He justifies the emancipation of acquisitiveness in the only way in which it can be defended: he shows that it is conducive to the common good." Strauss, 242. For Locke, then, "[u]nlimited appropriation without concern for the need of others is true charity." Strauss, 243. So similarly is the study of nature and knowledge treated by Locke. The study of nature and the acquisition of knowledge, too, is emancipated from the moral law through similar argument. "[T]he study of nature . . . may be of greater benefit to mankind than the monuments of exemplary charity that have, at so great charge, been raised by the founders of hospitals and alms-houses." So he who discovered the medicinal properties of quinine did more than those who built hospitals. George Soros and Bill Gates more virtuous and greater philanthropists than Mother Theresa or St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. Virtue has nothing to do with the inside of a man. Money, money, money, money, and the love of it is apparently Ok with Locke.

So this is the great charge of government, to preserve property. "The great and chief end . . . of men's uniting into commonwealths and putting themselves under government is the preservation of their property." Strauss, 245 (quoting Locke's Treatise) Madison in the Federalist No. 10, puts the Lockean notion of government succinctly: "The protection of [different and unequal faculties of acquiring property] is the first object of government." To protect the greedy? To sanction pleonexia?*** That's is the "first object," the "great and chief end" of government?

In Locke's notion of property, then, and in the civil government's role in protecting it, we have something very different, something highly revolutionary and anti-conservative and vicious. It is the formalization, the institutionalization, the invirtuation, of libido habendi. The rationalization: "Private vices" yield greater "public benefits." Virtue, after all is "unendowed," but vice is richly endowed. Wrong is thereby made right because it pays better. Since in the age in which Locke was writing most people still believed that the unlimited acquisition of wealth was unjust or morally wrong, however, Locke felt the need to "conceal" his doctrine, to justify unlimited acquisition by tying it to the common good, to appear to be "going with the herd," and further, to "so involve[] his sense, that it [would] not [be] easy to understand him." Strauss, 246. In a word, dissemble.

Locke, then, "is a hedonist," but a hedonist who advances a "peculiar hedonism." Strauss, 249. It is a Midasian hedonism, where the greatest pleasure is not in enjoying the greatest pleasures, but "in the having of those thing which produce the greatest pleasures." In short, "Locke says in effect that the greatest happiness consists in the greatest power." Strauss, 249. "Life" becomes what it seems to be for so many Ugly Americans who have swallowed the poison of Locke wrapped up in the sweet capsule in which he hid it and who frenetically pursue wealth, and not virtue, as the end of all ends: "the joyless quest for joy." Strauss, 251. One becomes as despairing as Midas, swallowed up in his greed, and bereft of any human consolation. He cannot love his wife, or his children, or give a piece of bread and hot soup to the poor, or clothe the naked, or perform any work of mercy, for everything is measured in, and therefore is transformed into, filthy lucre.

*Translation: "Every man for himself, and God for us all." In other words, let me take care of myself, and let God worry about others.
**Amor habendi = love of having or possessing. Amor nummi = love of money. Amor proximi = love of neighbor.
***Pleonexia (from Greek: πλεονεξια) is the Greek word for greed, covetousness, the inordinate grasping of more than one is entitled to. It is a concept that is both Biblical (cf. Col. 3:1-11, Luke 12:13-21) and classical Greek, found and described by both Plato and Aristotle as a disordered, vicious, and undesirable quality.


  1. I have long since given up any loyalty or fidelity to the United States and its makeup. It is nihilist. In essence, Locke gives sanction to selfishness. His whole thing, "Life, liberty, and happiness" which can be transmorgified into "Equalite, Liberte, Fraternite" is really an encapsulation of selfishness.

    In a previous quote you mentioned a French quote, "I'll take care of myself, and God takes care of everybody else"; it is just a mite too comparable of the Capitalist modality "I got mine, screw you".

    Great posts on Leo Strauss but I thought he was for democracy? He is not an advocate of classical republicanism (mixed government)?

    Oh, and a note on your mention of "antisemitism". All people, as Johann Herder points out have "volkenhaas". That is inherent in all people. I lived in Europe, Have you ever lived outside of America? The Europeans don't get along with Africans in America do they? Nor do the Danes with the Swiss, the English with the French and the Greeks with the Turks. Anti-semitism is the same as anti-Anglia, anti-franco, anti-german, anti-hellene.

    Inherent in all races is "Belonging" and "volkenhaas". That is part of the God-given makeup of man. There is legitimacy and reason to anti-semitism. The evil lies in disproportion, not in the essence.

  2. I am not intimately familiar with all of Strauss's work, but I don't take him to be a kind of Jacksonian democrat; I would classify him more in a classical republicanism framework.

    The concept of "volkenhaas" is interesting. Literally, "hate of peoples," the word seems to be an analogue to "odium theologicum," the "theological hate" that one denomination has to another. The word "hate" is too strong if taken literally, but if understood as "bias" it would seem unquestionable. We always prefer, or ought to prefer "one's own" as Burke stated it. We expect people to be somewhat loyal to his own. So a Father should be expected naturally to favor his children over those of his neighbor. It would be against the natural law for a Father to favor his neighbor's child over his own. Yet that does not mean the Father can be unjust, or cannot be charitable, to the child of his neighbor. The same principle exists, it seems to me, for one's country, one's peoples, one's political party, one's employer, one's football team, one's religious denomination. One always roots for one own, just like Joseph Sobran (RIP) observed that in seeing a mammal and reptile fight on nature shows, one instinctively roots for the mammal.