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 9, 2010

Leo Strauss and Natural Law: Thomistic Natural Right

THE THOMISTIC DOCTRINE OF NATURAL RIGHT is the last general type of classic natural right theory identified by Leo Strauss in his Natural Right and History. In many ways the Thomistic theory of natural right cleans up the ambiguities and irresolute character of its pagan predecessors, but Strauss does not find this an improvement. Reading between the lines of Strauss's work, I find it a bit disdainful, a bit impatient of Thomistic natural right. "In definiteness and noble simplicity," St. Thomas Aquinas's teaching on natural law, "surpasses the mitigated Stoic natural law teaching." Strauss, 163. Informed by the light of the Gospel and the lodestar of revealed knowledge of man, of nature, and of God, the Thomistic natural law doctrine appears to have synthesized all tensions, polished all rough spots, in some way to have woven a seamless theory:

No doubt is left, not only regarded the basic harmony between natural right and civil society, but likewise regarding the immutable character of the fundamental propositions of natural law; the principles of the moral law, especially as formulated in the Second Table of the Decalogue, suffer no exception, unless possibly by divine intervention. The doctrine of synderisis or of the conscience explains why the natural law can always be duly promulgated to all men and hence be universally obligatory.

Strauss, 163. One has a hunch, in reading Strauss's short treatment of Thomistic natural law, whether the "lack of doubt" encomium heaped upon the Thomistic doctrine by Strauss is not a back handed complement, sort of like Anthony gives to Brutus in his funeral oration in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. His treatment of it certainly gives it short shrift. And he mentions it in his Natural Right and History only to ignore it. Strauss, of course, was famous for writing in esoteric ways, leaving hidden messages between the lines. Strauss wonders whether the Thomistic formulation, which is intertwined with Scriptural and Patristic doctrine, is a pure, reason-based natural law doctrine. Is the natural law doctrine, as proposed by St. Thomas, graspable by reason alone? Or does it already presuppose faith in divine revelation? He asks the question already knowing how he intends to answer it.

For Strauss, the question of whether Thomistic natural law is truly natural is made even more urgent as a result of the Thomistic understanding of man's supernatural end and its belief in God. It is obvious that this understanding of man's supernatural end transcends the end that reason would assign to man, which would be limited to intellectual and moral perfection. St. Thomas, however, would see enough of a hint of man's supernatural end even in his natural end, as the natural end of man is reasonably seen as insufficient or lacking. (Clearly all men, regarless of faith, can testify to the plaint of Ecclesiastes: "Vanity of vanities, said Ecclesiastes vanity of vanities, and all is vanity." Vanitas vanitatum dixit Ecclesiastes vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas. (Eccl. 1:2)) St. Thomas would also believe that the existence of God could be established by reason alone. There is therefore reason's hint that there is more to man than his natural perfection. As Strauss explains:
Thomas . . . virtually contend[s] that, according to natural reason, the natural end of man is insufficient, or points beyond itself or, more precisely, that the end of man cannot consist in philosophic investigation, to say nothing of political activity. Thus natural reason itself creates a presumption in favor of the divine law, which completes or perfects the natural law.
Strauss, 164.

For Strauss, the Thomistic doctrine of natural law, then, would require more than merely a natural theology. It would require the acceptance of a biblical revelation. Strauss, therefore, sees it as being a case of "the absorption of natural law by theology." Strauss, 164. The doctrine of modern natural right, advanced by Hobbes and Locke among others, which Strauss is about to treat in his book, was a reaction to this absorption, this tying-together. As it would have been unknown to the pagan, classical treatment of natural law, it would again be wanted to be unknown by the moderns. Not only would the scriptural influences upon the natural law be rejected, but so likewise would the requirements of natural theology (i.e., that God can be known by reason). The modern natural law theories are based upon the belief that the evidence of the existence of natural moral principles are greater than the evidence of the existence of God. Thus, the argument goes, the basis for moral philosophy is greater than the basis of natural theology. So it is that efforts were made to jettison not only scriptural theology, but even natural theology, from the theory of natural law. In his soft, underhanded, dismissive way of addressing Thomistic natural law, one thinks one sees Strauss's atheism showing.

Strauss hints at the real motive behind this desire to wrest the natural law from natural theology and to separate the two. The State appears to have coveted certain areas of human action (indissolubility of marriage, contraception, he mentions: there are others, health care and education) which, under the Thomistic view, had been within the competency of the Church. How would the State take them back? Thus, for example, Montesquieu in his Spirit of Laws, opposes himself to the Thomistic doctrine of natural law. Why? Strauss suggests that "Montesquieu tried to recover for statesmanship a latitude which had been considerably restricted by the Thomistic teaching." Strauss, 165 (emphasis added). So for Strauss, Montesquieu is "nearer in spirit to the classics than to Thomas." Strauss, 164.

Yes. Perhaps. But perhaps that is just a scholarly way of saying that Montesquieu was unfaithful, was a dismantler. One might recall that Montesquieu De l'Esprit des Lois was placed on the Index of Prohibited Books, and the ecclesiastical censors, though moderns may spurn them, at least had their reasons. Perhaps what is involved is an overweening Caesar absorbing things that are, or at least once were, God's? When one has traveled down this road of separating Caesar from Christ, and made substantial gains in de-divinizing, de-sacralizing the State, why turn back? Food once swallowed and digested, why should it be vomited back out? What sort of recovery is that? One should recall, a dog returns to his own vomit. Sicut canis qui revertitur ad vomitum suum sic inprudens qui iterat stultitiam suam. (Proverbs 26:11). So maybe the rejection of natural theology and the hint of a supernatural end for man from natural law is a step backward. But Strauss the atheist did not mention that possibility.

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