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 5, 2010

Leo Strauss and Natural Right: The Socratic Dethronement of Hedonism

SOCRATES MAY BE REGARDED THE FOUNDER of political philosophy and therefore the "originator of the whole tradition of natural right teachings." Strauss, 120. It is the teaching flowing from Socrates and developed and amplified by Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, the Church Fathers and Christian thinkers, most especially Thomas Aquinas, that may be known as the "classic" natural right doctrine. It ought to be distinguished from the "modern" natural right doctrine that hales from the 17th Century, and apes its classic predecessor.*

It is difficult to apprehend the huge revolution in thought initiated by Socrates since we cannot easily put ourselves in the frame of mind of the pre-Socratics who looked not so much on human things as on natural things. One part of the pre-Socratic doctrine, however, Socrates maintained. That was the distinction between law as convention and nature. That distinction was maintained even while the advocates of classic natural right insisted that positive law and conventional morality ought nevertheless to reflect the order of nature.

Quid est? What is it? That is the thrust of the Socratic inquiry. With respect to any subject, the Socratic thinker asks What is it? What is law? What is justice? What is right? What is it to be man? Socrates sought to find the eidos or idea of a things, the shape, the form, the character of a thing that distinguish its being from the entirety of being as a whole. The Socratic inquiry sought to determine the reason behind things, particularly behind things human as distinguished from things natural and things divine. It sought the ratio rerum humanarum, the reason behind human things, without thereby deprecating or slighting the things of nature or of the gods. With great confidence in "common sense," and without any of the epistemological scruples that haunt the moderns since Descartes, Socrates endeavored to climb or ascend from opinions to truth. There was, he believed, sufficient truth in the opinions of men, even in their tension, contradiction, or variety, from which truth could be distilled by the process of dialectics, which Strauss defines as the "art of conversation or of friendly dispute." Strauss, 124. Opinions were the must from which the wine of truth could be pressed. The wine was in the grape if only one had the desire to educe it out through dialectic.
The opinions are thus seen to be fragments of the truth, soiled fragments of the pure truth. In other words, the opinions prove to be solicited by the self-subsisting truth, and the ascent to the truth proves to be guided by the self-subsistent truth which all men always divine.
Strauss, 124. This Socratic characteristic distinguishes them from the conventionalists. Conventionalism, distrustful of human accretions and traditions, disregarded the "understanding embodied in opinion," and appealed "from opinion to nature." Strauss, 126. Unfortunately, it then lost sight of nature, or at least that part of nature that was typically human.

More fundamentally, Socrates rejected the basic premise of conventionalism. As we have seen, conventionalism was hedonistic or materialistic at heart. Conventionalism identified the good with the pleasant. At the heart of the Socratic revolution was therefore the rejection of hedonism as the basis for determining what was good and what was right:
The basic premise of conventionalism appeared to be the identification of the good with the pleasant. Accordingly, the basic part of the classic natural right teaching is the criticism of hedonism. The thesis of the classics is that the good is essentially different from the pleasant, that the good is more fundamental than the pleasant.
Strauss, 126. For Socrates it was not pleasure but want and the desire to satisfy want that was the center of inquiry of reality. It was especially important to identify such wants, and not to view them as a disordered bundle of wants, but to recognize the natural order in them. "The order of the wants of a being points back to the natural constitution, to the What, of the being concerned; it is that constitution which determines the order, the hierarchy, of the various wants or of the various inclinations of a being." Strauss, 126-27. The proper hierarchization of the wants of man is what supplies the fodder, the substrate of natural right. Once viewed within the context of their natural ordering, what one identifies as preeminent takes one outside the hedonistic camp. Pleasure is not the ruling principle. Reason is the ruling principle. The natural order is what identifies reason, and not pleasure, as the keystone of man's moral nature.
It is the hierarchic order of man's natural constitution which supplies the basis for natural right as the classics understood it. In one way or another everyone distinguishes between the body and soul . . . . [and that] the soul stands higher than the body. . . . That which distinguishes the human soul from the souls of the brutes . . . is speech or reason or understanding. Therefore, the proper work of man consists in living thoughtfully, in understanding, and in thoughtful action. . . . The good life is the perfection of man's nature. It is the life according to nature. One may therefore call the rules circumscribing the general character of the good life "the natural law."
Strauss, 127. Pleasure, which had wrongly occupied the throne on the dais of morality, was dethroned. Human excellence, virtue, was put in the usurper pleasure's place. Human virtue bears the crown of reason. Reason was no longer to be a handmaid of pleasure; rather, reason was to the the handmaid of virtue. If pleasure walked with virtue, then pleasure was welcomed as a boon. But if pleasure and virtue departed, then the path of virtue had to be trod alone. This is what makes a man a man.

But a man did not, could not do this alone. For man was by nature also a social being. Speech or reason is what distinguishes man from the brutes, and speech or reason is what allows communion between one man and another. Man is therefore "social in a more radical sense than any other social animals: humanity itself is sociality." Strauss, 129.
Because man is by nature social, the perfection of his nature includes the social virtue par excellence, justice; justice and right are natural.
Strauss, 129.

Cecrops, First Athenian King

There is yet another Socratic addition to the moral equation. Though free, man knows that there are limits to his freedom. "There is no relation of man to man in which man is absolutely free to act as he pleases or act as it suits him." Strauss, 129. Even when he oversteps these boundaries and thus produces a sort of social trauma, man constructs, as it were, scar tissue that shows the original injury. When man oversteps his freedom, society displays indicia of neuroses. Thus the Greeks had their doctrine of autochthony** to justify their seizure of land, the Hindus their karma to justify their caste system. Even in its breach, the rule is apparent:
Man's freedom is accompanied by a sacred awe, by a kind of divination that not everything is permitted. We may call this aw-inspired fear "man's natural conscience." Restraint is therefore as natural or as primeval as freedom. As long as man has not cultivated his reason properly, he will have all sorts of fantastic notions as to the limits set to his freedom; he will elaborate absurd taboos. But what prompts the savages in their savage doings is not savagery but the divination of right.
Strauss, 130.

This is a lost truth: that restraint is as primeval as freedom. Rule is as fundamental as liberty. Fences are as fundamental as the field. We are bound by our nature, and outside its sacred pale, we queer ourselves and wander, as nomads or brigands do from law, at our peril to our certain misery.

*The "classic" natural right doctrine should also be distinguished from the "new" or "integral" theories of natural right such as those advanced by Grisez, Finis, and George.
**The Athenians of 5th and 4th century B.C. claimed to be an autochthonous nation, that is, a nation that had never changed their place of habitation, indeed, they were sons of the very soil, and so had never dispossessed any prior peoples of the land which they occupied. Cecrops (Kekrops or Κέκροψ), the mythical first king of Athens, virtually sprung from the ground.

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