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 25, 2010

Leo Strauss and Natural Law: Rousseau and Freedom

FREEDOM IS A WORD THAT IS SUBJECT TO ABUSE. It is, like many other fundamental yet multivalent concepts--justice, right, fairness, equality, to name other examples--a notably easy term to hijack. So we hear popular song lyrics include such inanities as, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to loose (lose?). . . ." When freedom is hijacked by radical individualists who pose as would-be philosophers such as Rousseau, it is deviated from its proper route and proper destination to some other undesired route and destination. In emptying the notion of the "state of nature" from any meaning, both social and rational (what Strauss calls the "depreciation or ex-inanition of the state of nature"), there was an inversely proportional emphasis on independence and freedom. Thus, Rousseau's concept of freedom, like Rousseau's life itself, is unbalanced, unhinged as it is from the cardinal guidance of any human nature. Freedom becomes a tyrannical principle because it tends toward arbitrariness:

According to Rousseau . . . freedom is a higher good than life. In fact, he tends to identify freedom with virtue or with goodness. He says that freedom is obedience to the law which one has given to one's self. This means, in the place, that not merely obedience to the law but legislation itself must originate in the individual. It means, secondly, that freedom is not so much either the condition or the consequence of virtue as virtue itself. What is true of virtue can also be said of goodness, which Rousseau distinguished from virtue: freedom is identical with goodness; to be free, or to be one's self, is to be good--this is one meaning of his thesis that man is by nature good. Above all, he suggests that the traditional definition of man be replaced by a new definition according to which not rationality but freedom is the specific distinction of man.

Strauss, 278. La distinction spécifique de l’homme que sa qualité d’agent libre. The notion that the distinction specific to man, as compared to the brute animals, is that he is a free agent, without regard to his social nature or to his rational nature, is what makes Rousseau's thought relatively novel, though it is really nothing but an extension and transformation and perhaps modernization of the old saws of Epicureanism. Nevertheless, at least for us moderns, "Rousseau may be said to have originated 'the philosophy of freedom.'" Strauss, 279. Torn from any moorings in man's social, moral, and rational nature, however, this Rousseauian freedom of the individual becomes socially, morally, and rationally noxious. The "rights" that it posits in the name of freedom become progressively less and less human.* The fruit that they eventually bear is a new tyranny, the tyranny of liberalism or relativism.

There is no such thing as law in Rousseau, at least not law as it has been universally understood. In Rousseau, law is a thing a man gives to himself. All law for Rousseau is derived from the individual, and even "legislation itself must originate in the individual." Strauss, 278. Law was released from any social, even any natural foundation or underpinning. Hobbes had already released law's norm, that is natural law, from any social duty and from any end or telos in nature. The result of this Hobbesian innovation was to lead to "conditional duties and to mercenary virtue." Strauss, 280. That is, everything related back to the fundamental desire of self-preservation. Rousseau accepted these Hobbesian assumptions, but sought somehow "graft the notion of unconditional duties and nonmercenary virtue." Strauss, 280. This, of course, meant he had to find a source of those duties somewhere other than the Hobbesian right of self-preservation. For Rousseau, the notion of self-preservation could not do this because man shared the desire for self-preservation with the brutes. Rousseau therefore tried to base duty and virtue on freedom. What Hobbes had effected between science and nature, Rousseau effected between morality (and, derivatively, law and politics) and nature.
[Rousseau] tended to conceive of the fundamental freedom, or of the fundamental right, as such a creative act that issues in the establishment of unconditional duties and in nothing else: freedom is essentially self-legislation. The ultimate outcome of this attempt was the substitution of freedom for virtue or the view that it is not virtue which makes man free but freedom which makes man virtuous.
Strauss, 281. This self-legislation is what Rousseau denominates as "true freedom" or "moral freedom," and though he distinguishes it from "civil freedom" and "natural freedom," yet he "blurs these distinctions." Strauss, 281. "The blurring of the distinctions between natural freedom, civil freedom, and moral freedom is no accidental error." Strauss, 281-82. Indeed not. For Rousseau, "the primary moral phenomenon is the freedom of the state of nature," which, grafted unto the "exploded notion of the state of nature" of Hobbes, gives the the "state of nature a new lease on life." Strauss, 282. But of course the notion of "state of nature," bound now with the fasces of of equality and of freedom instead of natural law, now means something completely different. Here in germ is obviously the source of political liberalism. Liberalism is the musings of Rousseau writ large.

Rousseau viewed the "state of nature" largely in positive light, at least when compared to his Lockean and Hobbesian counterparts. It was what defined the good life, and what was to be used in judging the adequacy of the social contract. How did the social contract advance the foundational "state of nature" underpinnings of equality and freedom? Man in his origins had a sense of "compassion," but as pride and vanity grew, inequality grew with it, and the cloth of freedom began to fray. So the social contract was an "artificial substitute" for the natural freedom and natural equality that was lost as man became corrupt. The social contract thus justifies itself the closer it approximates the original freedom and equality in the Rousseauian "state of nature." Similarly, law--that is, legislation--is "the conventional substitute for natural compassion" which respected natural freedom and equality. Strauss, 285. We have an odd exchange, a loss of natural compassion leads to a loss of freedom and equality which is exchanged for an artificial compassion which leads to an increase in freedom and equality. This is the Rousseauian bargain.

And yet the artificial compassion that is found in legislation becomes warped if man follows his private judgment, as distinguished from his public judgment. The private will in legislation infects the artificial compassion--and hence the gain in freedom and equality derived by it--if private will, instead of general or public will, is behind it. This requires, in Rousseau's view, a sort of collectivization of man. It is the only means that man may be both equal and free in a state of civil society, apart from a "state of nature." For Rousseau:

Freedom in society is possible only be virtue of the complete surrender of everyone (and in particular of the government) to the will of a free society. By surrendering all his rights to society, man loses the right to appeal from the verdicts of society."

Strauss, 286. Thus, to be free and equal, man must chain himself to positive law. "Free society rests and depends upon the absorption of natural right by positive law [of a properly qualified democracy]. The general will takes the place of the natural law." Strauss, 286. This is tantamount to deification of the general will: "By the very fact that he is, the sovereign is always what he ought to be." Man's will, what Rousseau would have called "democracy," has become god. The general will is Rousseau's new god. It is an unforgiving, jealous, inerrant, infallible god from whom there is no appeal.

And so the legislator as well as civil society itself must put before itself the task of constructing the rites of the citizen, that is its forced devotee's, worship. The society must construct for itself a civil religion. "Only the civil religion will engender the sentiments required of the citizen." Strauss, 288. The legislator should ascribe a divine origin to his code and a divine origin to his legislative mission. Hence, the nearly divine sanction given to the Constitution by Americans and the virtual apotheosis or deification given to the Father of our Constitution, George Washington, and the even more bizarre apotheosis of Lincoln and Washington found in some popular depictions. "Precisely a free society cannot exist," in the eyes of Rousseau, "if he who doubts the fundamental dogma of the civil religion does not outwardly conform." Strauss, 289.

Christ as Judge by Fra Angelico (ca. 1447)

Apotheosis of Washington (Capitol Rotunda, by Constantini Brumidi, 1865)

The comparison of, say, Fra Angelico's Christ in Judgment with the Apotheosis of Washington found in the Capitol's Rotunda would suggest that Washington, though a bit more smug and less compassionate than his divine counterpart, has become the New Christ of Republican Democracy. Washington is now the city planted on a hillside, the light of the world. Christ's role has been usurped by man, the follower of Rousseauian civil religion.

Holy Trinity by Pieter Coecke Van Aelst

Apotheosis of Lincoln by S. J. Ferris

In another equally revealing comparison, the Trinity of Pieter Coecke Van Aelst can be compared to the popular depiction of Washington's welcome of Lincoln by S. J. Ferris. Lincoln was the Great Redeemer of Republican Democracy, welcomed by its Father Washington, just as Christ the Redeemer of Mankind was welcomed by God the Father in traditional iconography. Comparing iconographies is too eerily telling. Rousseau saw himself competing with Christ. It is apparent that in the eyes of some at least, the Democracy of the United States, informed by Rousseau's theories, competes with Christianity.

But the very basis of Rousseauian political philosophy--its radical individualism--is infirm. It is infirm because it is indefinite.
The notion of a return to the state of nature on the level of humanity was the ideal basis for claiming a freedom from society which is not a freedom from something. It was the ideal basis for an appeal from society to something indefinite and undefinable, to an ultimate sanctity of the individual as individual, unredeemed and unjustified. This was precisely what freedom came to mean for a considerable number of men. Every freedom which is freedom for something, every freedom which is justified by reference to something higher than the individual or than man as mere man, necessarily restricts freedom or, which is the same thing, establishes as a tenable distinction between freedom and license. It makes freedom conditional on the purpose for which it is claimed.
Strauss, 294. Rousseau, it is true, still drank from the pagan dregs of Plutarch. He ceased reading the lives of the Saints. Nevertheless, he tasted through the insipid paganism of Plutarch the glimmer of the "disproportion between this undefined and undefinable freedom and the requirements of civil society." Strauss, 294. But his followers no longer would read Plutarch. These tomes would be shelved along with Suarez and St. Thomas Aquinas, there to gather dust. But our reader of Plutarch had given birth to the monster of liberalism, which joined to the monster of deified democracy, and together these political titans gave birth the birth of the modern liberal state, a state which, in the name of freedom and liberty entirely undefined and entirely unmeaning, seems to breathe above us, not with the Spirit of God in whom is perfect freedom, but with the stifling breath of a lustful tyrant which is simply biding his time until it has us all in chains that bear the words F-R-E-E-D-O-M.
*Strauss calls them "anti-socialistic systems of natural right," but they could also be called "anti-rationalistic, anti-socialistic, anti-moralistic" systems of natural right. All of them (and their name is Legion) seem to flow out of the poisoned well of Rousseau's narcissism and irresponsible thought. Rousseau's thought was not responsible to man's social, rational, and moral nature.

1 comment:

  1. Extremely interesting...

    I think this is a strong explanation as to why the current political climate finds the reasoning "I want to do this, so we should keep/change the law" more convincing than "I believe that that action is morally reprehensible so we should keep/change the law."

    This is clearly the case when you look at current trends or pushes for gay marriage and abortion vs. the rights of conscientious objectors (not partaking in abortions or actively taking part in gay lifestyles.)