Natural Right, Natural Law, and Leo Strauss

The greatest work of philosophy by the scholar commonly regarded as the greatest philosopher of Catholic Christendom remains unfinished. Thomas Aquinas abandoned the Summa Theologiae, declaring that all he had written seemed to him like chaff. Philosophy paled beside revelation—beside mystical experience and the glory of God.

To the believer, this story is testament to the humility even the finest of minds must feel upon encountering its Creator. To the nonbeliever, it may suggest the final incompatibility between faith and reason. The philosopher simply has nothing to say in the presence of God. Philosophy is either sovereign unto itself, or it is vanity.

Athens and Jerusalem

Leo Strauss consistently drew the distinction between Athens and Jerusalem sharply. The two cities—metonymy for reason and revelation and the Hellenic and Hebraic sides of the Western experience—are in tension, a word that occurs with some regularity in the 14 essays that comprise a new volume edited by Geoffrey M. Vaughan, Leo Strauss and His Catholic Readers. Several of the contributors to this book argue that Strauss exaggerates that tension, however. They find grounds instead for a “synthesis,” another recurrent word in these pages.

Strauss was a Jew who promoted a pre-Christian, classical understanding of “natural right” as found in Plato and Aristotle. Yet after the publication of his Natural Right and History in 1953, Strauss was sometimes classed alongside Catholic scholars of political philosophy who aimed to revive the natural law tradition of Aquinas. Strauss recognized that these Thomists were fighting some of the same battles against historicists and philosophical modernists that he was fighting. Nonetheless, his own position was quite distinct from theirs. Natural right, unlike natural law, is changeable and dependent on circumstance for its expression, says Strauss. As he puts it: “There is a universally valid hierarchy of ends, but there are no universally valid rules of action.”

Natural right is not as specific as natural law: “The Thomistic doctrine … of natural law is free from the hesitations and ambiguities which are characteristic of the teachings, not only of Plato and Cicero, but of Aristotle as well.” Strauss may surprise and trouble Catholic admirers when he says, “modern political thought returned to the classics by opposing the Thomistic view” on “such issues as the indissolubility of marriage and birth control.” Strauss sides with the author of The Spirit of the Laws over that of the Summa Theologiae: “Montesquieu tried to recover for statesmanship a latitude which had been considerably restricted by Thomistic teaching.”

For the Thomist, revelation completes reason, providing answers for questions otherwise impenetrable. According to Strauss, however, “the ultimate consequence of the Thomistic view of natural law is that natural law is practically inseparable not only from natural theology—i.e., from a natural theology which is, in fact, based on belief in biblical revelation—but even from revealed theology.”

These remarks in Natural Right and History are almost all that Strauss has to say about Catholic philosophy and Thomism. As Vaughan notes in his introduction to Leo Strauss and His Catholic Readers, “Strauss wrote almost nothing on Catholic authors.” Yet Catholic readers can gain much from Strauss, including, as Vaughan argues, an understanding of “modernity and its relation to the history of philosophy,” as well as a reminder “of a less than distinguished record on the part of Catholic politics in its theoretical and practical dimensions” and “the fact that political philosophy has been superseded within official Catholic channels by social teaching.”

Vaughan is an associate professor of political science at a Catholic institution, Assumption College in Massachusetts, and the essays he has brought together provide a wide variety of perspectives on the relationship between Strauss, the Catholic faith, Thomism, “Athens and Jerusalem,” and connected matters. The book is divided into three parts—“Encounters with Leo Strauss and Natural Right,” “Leo Strauss and Catholic Concerns,” and “Leo Strauss on Christianity, Politics, and Philosophy”—but this formal structure is less important than the thematic connections between individual essays.

The Attempt to Synthesize Faith and Reason

For example, V. Bradley Lewis, associate professor of philosophy at Catholic University, and Gladden Pappin, assistant professor in the Department of Politics at the University of Dallas (as well as deputy editor of the political journal American Affairs), both compare Strauss’s thought to that of certain of his Catholic contemporaries—in Lewis’s essay, Charles McCoy exclusively; in Pappin’s, Alexandre Passerin d’Entrèves, and Yves R. Simon.

The Lewis contribution by itself makes a commanding case for rediscovering McCoy, a priest, professor, and Thomist who engaged brilliantly with the history of political philosophy and with Strauss’s thought. McCoy contributed to the first edition of The History of Political Philosophy (1963) edited by Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, but his chapters on Augustine and Thomas Aquinas “were dropped and replaced by new chapters written by Father Ernest Fortin in the second edition,” Lewis reports. Fortin was closer to Strauss’s thinking than was McCoy, who was “a serious and, at once, both critical and admiring reader of Strauss.”

Lewis and Pappin helpfully show the philosophical differences between Strauss and the 20th century Catholic political thinkers they examine. Philippe Bénéton, professor emeritus at l’universite de Rennes I and l’institut Catholique d’Etudes Superieures in France, provides an equally useful comparison between Strauss and Blaise Pascal. All three authors are among the contributors to this volume who highlight the divisions between Strauss and specific varieties of Catholic thought.

Several others, on the other hand, attempt to bring Strauss into alignment with Catholic ideas. Robert Kraynak, Carson Holloway, and Gary Glenn fall into this camp. They have the harder task of making the case for a synthesis between Strauss and Catholicism. None of them, to my mind, makes it altogether persuasively.

Holloway, associate professor of political science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, defends the reasonableness of Catholic belief and seeks to show its harmony with philosophy as understood by Strauss. He argues that a Catholic regime is also compatible with political philosophy on political grounds—after all, even Aristotle ascribes a public role to a priesthood. Glenn, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Northern Illinois, questions, among other things, whether natural law really is as inflexible as Strauss suggests. Both of these essays miss the mark.

A synthesis of faith and reason along Holloway’s lines is for Strauss not a desideratum but a danger. Why? Because philosophy is nobody’s handmaid; she is a queen in her own right. A synthesis that appears to subordinate reason to revelation—with revelation filling in the gaps of reason—in fact compromises the authority of revelation by admitting the power of philosophy to affirm religious truth (or the preconditions for that truth). If philosophy can affirm religious truth, however, it must also in principle be able not to affirm that truth—to find, for example, that the universe was not created ex nihilo or that the god implied by natural reason is an impersonal one. If philosophy did not have this freedom, then it would not be philosophy, but rather obedience. Yet philosophy that is free to inquire as the philosopher pleases is never guaranteed to come to the conclusions that religion requires.

In short, by admitting the authority of philosophy on matters touching on religion, a synthesis lays the groundwork for a revolution. A synthesis, from Strauss’s point of view, does not strengthen revealed religion, but weakens it fatally.

Glenn’s argument is likewise problematic. He cites Augustine’s case study of a woman who is compelled to commit adultery, with her husband’s permission, in order to save his life as an example of natural law permitting as much flexibility as classical natural right. The problems here are multiple: Augustine may or may not be a representative of natural law in contrast to natural right, but he is certainly not a representative of the Thomistic natural law tradition that Strauss explicitly makes the focus of his criticism.

Glenn could have cited Jesuit casuistry as a better illustration of natural law’s practical capaciousness. But exceptions do not vitiate the rule: Strauss’s concern is that natural law, qua law, aims to be context-invariant and precisely prescriptive in ways that classical natural right does not. If one really could weaken natural law to the point where it was as ambiguous as natural right often is, what would be the benefit—why, in that case, continue to subscribe to cleverly modified natural law rather than to simple natural right?

Both Glenn and Holloway have occasion to discuss the notion of a noble lie and the distinction between refined ideas for philosophers and general teachings for unsophisticated audiences. Holloway notes that Strauss certainly believes philosophers must be respectful of public orthodoxy, which every polity has. But all of this is irrelevant to Strauss’s criticisms of natural law, unless one were to make the crude claim that natural law is for the hoi polloi while natural right is for the wise. Glenn and Holloway stop short of doing that.

Ralph Hancock on Finding Common Ground

The final essay in this volume, Ralph C. Hancock’s “Leo Strauss’s Profound and Fragile Critique of Christianity,” is more successful in finding common ground between Athens and Jerusalem, albeit not through a medieval or modern synthesis. Hancock, professor of political science at Brigham Young University, argues that the other great duality emphasized by Strauss, the divide between ancients and moderns, is the key to understanding his differences with Christianity. The latter, for Strauss, is modern or modernizing.

Athens and Jerusalem are for Strauss limiting and counter-universalist, in that Judaism is a law for a specific people while classical natural right is essentially aristocratic and anti-democratic. Christianity, by universalizing revelation and replacing the classical backdrop of the few versus the many with an ideal of the One and all (one truth and all people equal; a thought for which Hancock acknowledges his debt to Pierre Manent), removes the limitations on politics and theory that had been characteristic of ancient Athens and Jerusalem alike and paves the way—eventually—for what Alexandre Kojève dubbed the “universal and homogeneous state.”

Strauss’s “insistence on the separation between Athens and Jerusalem,” writes Hancock, “is intended as a means of preserving the sense of eternal order and natural limits that they share.” And ironically, “the modern, progressive synthesis of reason’s pride with the claims of universal justice was directed against but also prepared by the Christian project of integrating Athens and Jerusalem.”

Hancock puts the matter succinctly: “Even—or especially—serious Christians can appreciate the force of Strauss’s very discreet argument that Christianity is vulnerable to co-optation by ‘social justice,’ as its Jewish humility undermines aristocratic pretensions, and its Hellenism undermines the particularity of the Jewish commandments.” He concludes by summarizing “Leo Strauss’s advice to Christians: the only brakes on the secular appropriation of Christian humility and universalism are Jewish Law and pagan honor”—Athens and Jerusalem on their own unreconciled terms.

This synopsis does not do full justice to the depth of Hancock’s argument. His essay by itself is worth the price of the book, and many of its other chapters are nearly as valuable. Besides the contributions already mentioned, there are essays by Marc C. Guerra, Douglas Kries, John P. Hittinger, J. Brian Benestad, Giulio De Ligio, and James R. Stoner Jr., covering everything from “Leo Strauss’s Critique of Modern Political Philosophy and Ernest Fortin’s Critique of Modern ‘Catholic Social Teaching’” (Kries, in another outstanding chapter) to “The Influence of Historicism on Catholic Theology” (Benestad’s chapter, whose focus is narrower than the title suggests and which winds up having little to say about Strauss).

In all, Geoffrey Vaughan has compiled a work that is essential not only for students of Strauss and Straussian thought but for anyone, whether Catholic or not, who is interested in questions of faith and reason. It is a worthy tribute to Strauss and his Catholic interlocutors, and essays like Hancock’s should lead Catholic readers not to despair over the congruity of fides et ratio but to appreciate the hazards inherent in the tradition of the Christian West. If the synthesis poses a danger, a remedy must be found—but that does not, for the Christian, mean the synthesis must be abandoned.