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Natural Right and History (1953)

af Leo Strauss

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596240,239 (3.92)3
In this classic work, Leo Strauss examines the problem of natural right and argues that there is a firm foundation in reality for the distinction between right and wrong in ethics and politics. On the centenary of Strauss's birth, and the fiftieth anniversary of the Walgreen Lectures which spawned the work, Natural Right and History remains as controversial and essential as ever. "Strauss . . . makes a significant contribution towards an understanding of the intellectual crisis in which we find ourselves . . . [and] brings to his task an admirable scholarship and a brilliant, incisive mind."--John H. Hallowell, American Political Science Review Leo Strauss (1899-1973) was the Robert Maynard Hutchins Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Political Science at the University of Chicago.… (mere)
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Natural Right was invented by the ancient Greeks. It is a philosophical concept, an abstraction, the evolution of which looks to Leo Strauss like a degeneration from higher to baser principles.

The idea of Natural Right developed once the Greeks came to doubt authority, as a consequence of their discovery and investigation of nature (as opposed to convention). The Greeks’ search for the Good led to a consideration of various political forms more or less in accordance with (what the Greeks understood as) human nature. The Greeks uncovered the fundamental political themes and questions that have been asked ever since:

How ought man to live?
What is the ultimate goal of wise action?
Which values are paramount?

The so-called historical school would point out that the answers to such questions vary across societies and cultures, and that no universal consensus is possible. Strauss responds that, because the fundamental problems have persisted across time, human thought is capable of grasping something trans-historical. Political life in all its forms pointed to Natural Right as an inevitable and recurring problem, writes Strauss, but a fundamental comprehension is in principle accessible to man as man.

The ancient understanding, that the good life is ‘the life in which the requirements of man’s natural inclinations are fulfilled in the proper order to the highest possible degree,’ has been muddied and very nearly lost sight of since the 17th century, says Strauss. Classic Natural Right recognized man’s natural sociality and insisted that, in order to reach his highest stature, man must live in the best kind of society, one conducive to human excellence, where the supreme virtue is self-restraint. Since the Enlightenment, the idea of Natural Right has been shaped by science (which privileges facts over values, which are reduced to ‘preferences’) and political economy (which privileges rights over virtue) and so modern political philosophy emphasizes man’s individuality over his sociality. The pursuit of freedom has replaced the pursuit of wisdom. Strauss leaves it to the reader to consider the ramifications of that development.

Strauss owed allegiance to no political tendency or faction, but his sympathies were usually apparent. He was one of the great expositors of political philosophy in the 20th c., and anyone aiming for competence in the field would have to engage with his commentary. Natural Right and History includes learned discussions of Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Burke and others. The power of Strauss’s work has little to do with whether or not one agrees with him; it is instead in his skeptical stance toward dogma and ideology and in the logic and rigor of his philosophical critique. ( )
1 stem HectorSwell | Mar 8, 2018 |
This book was developed out of a set of lectures given by Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago in 1949. It still has the character of three texts in six chapters, more than than it does a monograph, although they share a common subject matter and are set in a reasonable sequence.

A strange feature of the edition that I read is the cover design, which incorporates as background the title of the American Declaration of Independence. Although the idea of "natural right" may be wedded in American imagination to "truths" that "we hold ... to be self-evident," Strauss at no point references that document, or Thomas Jefferson, or US history at all. The Declaration of Independence is no more relevant to Strauss' discussion here than is Liber LXXVII vel Oz, and it was more out of engagement with the latter that I undertook to read this book.

Strauss is notorious as an intellectual mentor for some of the senior figures in the neoconservative faction of American politics, and I realized while reading this book that he may be ultimately to blame for the neocons' popularization of the term "regime (change)," inasmuch as he very carefully and conspicuously chooses "regime" to translate politeia as it appears in classical texts (136f.). However, the neocon usage signifies a particular government considered as individuals and the institutions they dominate, e.g. "the Netanyahu regime." This meaning is not in keeping with the larger sense of politeia as the socio-political integrity of a society. Strauss also observes that the traditional concept of "regime" has been superseded in modernity by the less coherent idea of a "civilization" (138).

Neocons' reading of Strauss is likely to have found some gratification in his treatment of Edmund Burke, the last of four figures surveyed here in the development of "modern natural right." Burke, now viewed as a philosophical founder of Anglo-American conservatism, gets some applause from Strauss for his valuing of practice over theory, and his recovery of a measure of the Ciceronian concept of political virtue. Even so, he is still shown as a sort of "last gasp" of such a sensibility, and his acceptance of individualism as a political principle places him on the same path of descent as the wider intellectual culture (323).

Throughout the book, and especially in its opening chapters, Strauss can be seen taking a stand (both with and against Nietzsche, see p. 26) in opposition to the sort of "historicism" that thoroughly relativizes political values, and thus dismisses the concept of natural right. He takes for a proponent and representative of the historicist school the sociologist Max Weber. I was fascinated in passing at a number of quotes from Weber, such as "Become what thou art" (44ff.), that seem highly Nietzschean, if not even Thelemic.

Strauss composed Natural Right and History (1953) at around the same time as Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952), and the method of a hermeneutic of esoteric writing, as understood by Strauss, is on display here. For example, in discussing Locke, the first of his four modern figures, Strauss remarks, "The fact that he is generally known as a cautious writer shows that his caution is obtrusive, and therefore perhaps not what is ordinarily understood as caution" (206). A more overt and detailed application of the method of esoteric reading is given in a long footnote discussing the possibility of Hobbes' atheism, where Strauss observes, "Many present-day scholars ... do not seem to have a sufficient notion of the degree of circumspection or of accommodation to the accepted views that was required, in former ages, of 'deviationists,' if they wished to die in peace" (198-199n.).

Glossing Plato and classical thinkers generally, Strauss tells us, "Philosophizing means, then, to ascend from public dogma to essentially private knowledge" (12).
2 stem paradoxosalpha | May 8, 2016 |
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In this classic work, Leo Strauss examines the problem of natural right and argues that there is a firm foundation in reality for the distinction between right and wrong in ethics and politics. On the centenary of Strauss's birth, and the fiftieth anniversary of the Walgreen Lectures which spawned the work, Natural Right and History remains as controversial and essential as ever. "Strauss . . . makes a significant contribution towards an understanding of the intellectual crisis in which we find ourselves . . . [and] brings to his task an admirable scholarship and a brilliant, incisive mind."--John H. Hallowell, American Political Science Review Leo Strauss (1899-1973) was the Robert Maynard Hutchins Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Political Science at the University of Chicago.

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