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.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Leo Strauss and Natural Right: Socratic-Platonic-Stoic Natural Right

JERUSALEM INJECTED ITSELF INTO ATHENS largely as a result of Christianity's agency, and neither Athens nor Jerusalem was ever to be the same. Perhaps the most significant effect of Christ's encounter with Socrates was the diminution of the role of the polis (or Caesar) in the advancement of moral order. "The best regime as the classics understood it," when confronted by Christ and His Church, "ceases to be identical with the perfect moral order." Strauss, 144. The best regime was the City of God, the Kingdom of Heaven, an eschatalogical and not secular reality, one however found in germ in the Church of the Lord on earth and in the fullness of reality in heaven or the end times, the parousia. The end of man was revealed to be transcendent, requiring of Grace, and reliant on God's supernatural largess, though not without the cooperation of man. So as a result of this new vantage point, the end of civil society was viewed to comprehend only a "certain segment of the virtuous life," and not covering the "virtuous life as such," since the theological virtues were outside the competence of, indeed were unknown by, either by the polis or by the empire. There was, moreover, a marked definition of the natural law not found in times past informed, as it was, by the light of the Decalogue:
The notion of God as lawgiver takes on a certainty and definiteness which it never possessed in classical philosophy. Therefore natural right or, rather, natural law becomes independent of the best regime and takes precedence over it. The Second Table of the Decalogue and the principles embodied in it are of infinitely higher dignity than the best regime.
Strauss, 144. The modification of the classic natural right theory by Christian revelation was to be the influential theory that guided Western political thought.
It is classic natural right in this profoundly modified form that has exercised the most powerful influence on Western thought almost since the beginnings of the Christian Era.
Strauss, 144-45.

Strauss divides the patrimony of classic natural right teachings into three general categories or types: (i) Socratic-Platonic (into which he also places the Stoics by virtue of shared cynicism, and subsequently calls Socratic-Platonic-Stoic), (ii) Aristotelian, and (iii) Thomistic. In this posting we shall discuss the Socratic-Platonic-Stoic type.

According to Strauss, the Socratic-Platonic-Stoic teaching on natural right may be described by focusing upon the two most common views of justice. Justice may be defined as simply "good," or it may be defined by reference to law, as "giving to everyone what is due to him." Since the "law" by which justice is defined (if human) may be bad, such justice, which relies upon human law, may be bad. Accordingly, under the theory of natural right, the "law" to which justice as giving to each his due must refer must be the law according to nature. Under this view, justice will then be regarded as the habit of benefiting others by giving them their due in accordance with nature. Only the wise man can discern what is good by nature, and thus for justice to exist it must be the wise man that controls the reins of the polity and the distribution of its benefits and its burdens. Confronted with a small boy with a large coat, and a large boy with a little coat, the state will intervene and force a transfer between the boys since, a natural justice would find such a transfer consonant with giving to each what nature would indicate right. There is no "invisible hand"; rather, there would be the "visible hand" of the wise directing justice be done by enforcing an exchange willy nilly. "Justice," understood thus, "is then incompatible with what is generally understood by private ownership." Strauss, 147. Men would be fitted to do jobs, not by their desire, but in accordance to the talents with which nature has endowed them. "Justice exists, then, only in a society in which everyone does what he can do well and in which everyone has what he can use well." Strauss, 148. There is therefore an eerily communistic Marxist or liberal-progressive Rawlsian vein to this Socratic-Platonic-Stoic notion of natural right. One could define justice to consist of the principle "'from everyone according to his capacity and to everyone according to his merits,'" or perhaps "'equality of opportunity.'" Strauss, 148. Ultimately, such accidental additions such as gender, beauty, even citizenship become irrelevant in the distribution of goods and the imposition of burdens. There is a rejection of "citizen-morality," and marked tendency towards a cosmopolis, a "'world-state.'" Strauss, 149.

Contrary to modern secular man who believes himself wise and able to rule justly a world state without any help from the divine, the advocates of the Socratic-Platonic-Stoic theory doubted, both practically and theoretically, man's ability to rule justly a world state without being informed by the divine. They thus transcended the notion of the human cosmopolis to see the cosmos that was ruled by God as the only true city, "or that city that is simply according to nature because it is the only city which is simply just." Strauss, 150. The city was the cosmos writ small. And so a distinction was made between the law that was eternal and providentially drove the cosmos, on the one hand, and the law that was natural and governed, or should govern, the cities of men, on the other hand.
Men are citizens of this [heavenly] city, or freemen in it, only if they are wise; their obedience to the law which orders the natural city, to the natural law, is the same thing as prudence.
Strauss, 150.

Thus justice was something that transcended the rough and tumble of political life, a life that the wise, the lovers of wisdom, were not predisposed to pursue. To descend back into the cave of shadows, when they have seen the sun and ideal shapes outside, suggests that the life of the city distracts from reality. Justice within the cities of men could only imperfectly reflect the justice of God which governed the cosmos. So natural law and politics suffer a demotion:
If these [practical] requirements [for the city] are identical with natural right or with natural law, natural right or natural law must be diluted in order to become compatible with the requirements of the city. The city requires that wisdom be reconciled with consent. But to admit the necessity of consent, i.e., of the consent of the unwise, amounts to admitting a right of unwisdom, i.e., an irrational, if inevitable, right. Civil life requires a fundamental compromise between wisdom and folly . . . .Civil life requires the dilution of natural right by merely conventional right. Natural right would act as dynamite for civil society.
Strauss, 152.

This dilution of natural right as it descended from the heavens into the chambers of the elders or of the senate, "is the philosophic root of the later distinction between primeval natural right and the secondary natural right."* Strauss, 153. The former, which belonged to man in a state of innocence, did not provide for certain features now practically required in post-lapsarian civil society (e.g., private property). What may have been practicable in a state of innocence was not in a state of corruption. Thus, in man's current state, secondary natural right governed.

There is, however, a distinction between secondary natural right (which contains divine warrant) and the dilution of natural right. As Strauss explains:
This distinction [between primary and secondary natural right] was linked with the view that the primeval natural right, which excludes private property and other characteristic features of civil society, belonged to man's original state of innocence, whereas the secondary natural right is needed after man has become corrupted, as a remedy for his corruption.
Strauss, 153.

Importantly, there is a distinction between the primary/secondary natural right distinction and the principle that natural right becomes diluted. The dignity that is maintained by natural right suffers in its dilution from the throne of heaven to the thrones of earth. The diluted natural law is insipid, and to the extent it is cut or weakened by convention or consent it loses its divine warrant. It falls short of perfection. So the natural law in its perfection retains its explosive tendency. On the other hand, secondary natural law retains the full vigor of divine warrant. Secondary natural law is the law of God adapted to changed circumstances, namely, to the state of fallen man. The notion of secondary natural law, then, allows "justice, as it is commonly understood," to be "unquestionably good," and "primary natural right" ceases to be "dynamite for civil society." Strauss, 153.

*Strauss cites to Hooker, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, I.x.13, which addresses the distinction between primary and secondary laws of nations. These are briefly addressed in Law, Sit Up Higher: Richard Hooker and the Natural Law, Part 12.

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