Hostname: page-component-848d4c4894-ttngx Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-05-30T01:42:38.628Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Natural Right and Philosophy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 August 2009


“The problem inherent in the surface of things, and only in the surface of things, is the heart of things.” So wrote Leo Strauss in his Thoughts on Machiavelli. The sentence may seem to be a passing remark, and yet it states his main hermeneutical principle. On the one hand it articulates the abiding hypothesis that what is first for us, the very looks of things, is somehow first in itself. On the other hand it guides his commentaries on great books, ancient as well as modern. What if we let this principle guide our commentaries on Strauss's own books? Then the heart of Natural Right and History, for example, is arguably the disproportion between what first appears to be his teaching about natural right and what first appears to be his skepticism about the knowability of natural right.

Research Article
Copyright © University of Notre Dame 1991

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1. Strauss, L., Thoughts on Machiavelli (Seattle: Washington University Press, 1969), p. 13.Google Scholar

2. Strauss, L., Natural Right and History [hereafter NRH] (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1953), pp. 980, 93127.Google Scholar The argument on pp. 93–108 is not against the thesis of classic conventionalism itself but against its reason for rejecting natural right. And the account on pp. 108–113 is explanatory, not justificatory; had it been offered as an argument against the thesis of conventionalism itself, it would have instantiated the genetic fallacy.

3. NRH, pp. 3, 24, 35, also pp. 28, 203.Google Scholar I find in Strauss's writings no argument for this verificationalist premiss, nor any explication of what “knowing” means in these contexts.

4. NRH, pp.32, 35 (cf. 74, 78, 92, 125)Google Scholar; 7, 8, 24 (cf. 100, 141, 145, 150).

5. NRH, pp. 20, 29, 30, 32, 35.Google Scholar

6. NRH, p. 20 with pp. 124, 171, 196, 320.Google Scholar

7. NRH, e.g., pp. 20, 32, 35, 89, 90, 116, 122–23, 125, 151, 176.Google Scholar

8. NRH, esp. pp. 2324, 3033.Google Scholar On the Kantian background here, see Gourevitch, V., “Philosophy and Politics, I-IIReview of Metaphysics 22 (1968): 300.Google Scholar In being coeval with what partakes of them, “Straussian” problems are unlike “Platonic” ideas but perhaps not unlike “Socratic” ideas.

9. NRH, pp. 32, 34, 35, 42, 79.Google Scholar Compare pp. 258, 262–63, 312, 320. See also Strauss, L., On Tyranny (Ithaca: Cornell UP., 1963), pp. 209210Google Scholar, and What is Political Philosophy? (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1973), p. 38.Google Scholar

10. NRH, esp. pp. 32, 35.Google Scholar One may usefully compare Sextus Empiricus on isostheneia. Some readers will be reminded of W. v. O. Quine's Hobbesian thesis that the world, or the flux of experience, underdetermines our theories about the world. On Quine's account, however, though the flux of experience puts some constraints on our theory-making, it nevertheless admits of indefinitely many theories none of which is evidentially superior to any other, whereas on Strauss's account the number of fundamental options is quite small. Some readers will also be reminded of R. Nozick's claim that there are several true but mutually incompatible theories of the world. On Nozick's account, however, all these theories are indeed true, whereas on Strauss's account none of the fundamental options is indeed final. Some readers might insist that the problematic character of every fundamental alternative is due not to the problems themselves but to the unprovability even of those options which are final. This, however, is nowhere stated or implied in Strauss's account. In the relevant contexts he does not even mention the problem of persuading others to accept a statement one knows to be true. And probably he would agree that no fundamental option could be demonstrated even if it were final, on the ground that arguments to first principles can be deictic but not apodeictic.

11. NRH, pp. 35, 125Google Scholar, and, e.g., Thoughts on Machiavelli, p. 14Google Scholar; What Is Political Philosophy? pp. 11, 26, 33, 39, 116Google Scholar; The City and Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), p. 21.Google Scholar

12. The City and Man, pp. 21, 62, 138Google Scholar; cf. What Is Political Philosophy?, p.38Google Scholar; and NRH, pp. 123, 145–46Google Scholar. One should ask whether one can make “the cave” a part in the way that the cosmos or universe is a part, without obfuscating the distinction between nomos and physis; consider NRH, p. 137.Google Scholar

13. Cf. NRH, pp. 126–27 with pp. 78, and p. 36 with p. 74.Google Scholar

14. Cf. NRH, pp. 121–22Google Scholar, and The City and Man, p. 241.Google Scholar

15. NRH, p. 36 with p. 35 (compare pp. 193–94; also p. 141 with p. 198).Google Scholar

16. Consider esp. NRH, pp. 18, 22, 33.Google Scholar Also Thoughts on Machiavelli, pp. 290, 293, 295.Google Scholar

17. NRH, pp. 32, 74, also pp. 35, 36.Google Scholar

18. The City and Man, p. 138Google Scholar; also p. 1 and NRH, pp. 144–45, 151Google Scholar, and Plato, Apology of Socrates 20b4–5 and context. Strauss says that man's natural sociality provides the basis of natural right “in the narrow or strict sense” of the term (NRH, p. 129Google Scholar). Is it man's natural orientation to the good, or the hierarchy within his nature, which provides the basis of natural right in the full or comprehensive sense of the term?

19. Cf. Benardete, S., “Leo Strauss' The City and ManPolitical Science Reviewer 8 (1981): 111.Google Scholar It is pertinent here to ask how the problem of natural right is related to that problem regarding homogeneity and heterogeneity which Strauss mentions in What is Political Philosophy? pp. 3940.Google Scholar Their relation will become evident, perhaps, on investigation of the fact that justice appears to be both a measure of more-and-less and a measure of fittingness. Cf. Plato, Statesman.

20. That they lost sight of the political as well is understandable, given the “openness” of the political to the soul.

21. Consider Thoughts on Machiavelli, p. 295 with p. 14.Google Scholar (Strauss took the statements on these two pages to be consistent, and presumptively they are.) The dyadic structure of natural right, as I have described it, is arguably too simple. According to Strauss, at any rate, Aristotle held natural right to be mutable on the ground that otherwise it would be unable to cope with the inventiveness of evil; more generally, perhaps, it would not be applicable in extreme as well as normal situations. Plato, too, avoided the Skylla of absolutism and the Charybdis of relativism; he too held that there is a universally valid hierarchy of ends but no indefeasible rules of action. (NRH, pp. 160–63.Google Scholar Notice the absence of footnotes to his account here.) This, according to Strauss, is an explication of the mutability of natural right, or mutability of its instantiation in practice, and not an explication of its dilution by conventional right. (Compare NRH, pp. 152–53.Google Scholar) Perhaps, then, we should explicate the dyadic structure of natural right in terms of the contrast not only between civic and psychic, but also between normal and extreme. I would regard this as an elaboration of my proposal, however, not as an alternative to it.

22. NRH, p. 35.Google ScholarIn this respect Strauss may be more Socratic than Platonic (p. 36).Google Scholar

23. NRH, p. 42 (not inconsistent with p. 5).Google Scholar It is the contemporary rejection of natural right which entails nihilism. Classic philosophical conventionalism, which also rejects natural right, does not. And Socratic human wisdom does not reject natural right, but rather acknowledges it as a problem.

24. Compare NRH, pp. 36, 74, 8687, 97Google Scholar, et passim with Plato's Meno 80b6, 81d3–el, 86b6–c2. Strauss nowhere asserts, with Weber, that ultimate values are mutually incompatible. Weber did not realize that he was in no position to make such an assertion (NRH, pp. 6471).Google Scholar

25. See especially the section entitled “ ‘Reason’ in Philosophy” in Twilight of the Idols. In Nietzsche's account the intrahistorical concepts are those of unity, thinghood, substance, permanence, the true, the good, the perfect, the ego. In Strauss's account they are the ideas of philosophy, nature, natural right, the best regime, science, the city and virtue, and History (NRH, pp. 3, 11, 12, 31, 38, 80, 81, 82, 84, 93, 167, 180, 191, 253, 261, 316).Google Scholar

26. NRH, pp. 146ff.Google ScholarWhen Strauss remarks the noble simplicity of the Thomistic doctrine, he seems to be speaking politely; see p. 163 with p. 262.Google Scholar

27. NRH, pp. 107109, 126–27, 151.Google Scholar

28. NRH, pp. x, 3132, 7880, 105, 125, 137–38, 144.Google Scholar Compare Aristotle's Politics, bk. 3.

29. Cf. Plato Republic 545d8 with 369a5–6, 376d9, 378c4.

30. NRH, pp. 11, 31, 83, 95.Google Scholar

31. NRH, pp. 13, 57, 120.Google ScholarOn the need for historical studies of a certain sort: pp. 3334, 95.Google Scholar

32. NRH, pp. 93ff.Google Scholar See above, note 2.

33. Cf. Gourevitch, V., op. cit., pp. 289293Google Scholar, and Kennington, R., “Strauss's Natural Right and History,” Review of Metaphysics 35 (1981): 61, 74, 8086.Google Scholar Strauss himself speaks of the difficulty with which every teleological physics is beset (NRH, p. 172).Google Scholar

34. NRH, pp. 192, 295ff.Google Scholar

35. NRH, 167–68.Google ScholarThis is not the only passage in which Strauss notes the connection between such spiritedness and idealism; cf. pp. 142, 177–78.Google Scholar

36. NRH, pp. 154–55Google Scholar; see also pp. 3, 6, 206–207. Strauss takes the Stoic natural law doctrine to be Socratic-Platonic in principle.

37. NRH, p. 163 with pp. 3, 36.Google Scholar

38. NRH, pp. 18, 155, 162, 169, 175, 192, 196f n 39, 303, 313, 320.Google Scholar

39. The crucial difference can be summarized thus: (i) classic natural right provides something like divine support for citizen-morality, whereas modern natural right does not; (ii) classic natural right ranks both nobility and justice above pleasure or comfort, whereas modern natural right does not. It is true that some if not all classic natural right teachings point to a disproportion between political life and philosophy, or between a decent regime in fact and the best possible regime. But acceptance of some such teaching need not be unsalutary.

40. NRH, pp. 67, 35, 36, 78, 127, 144, 164.Google ScholarHe evidently rejects the Rousseauean and Burkean conceptions of this relation: pp. 288, 302, 309, 311.Google Scholar

41. NRH, pp. 3, 24, 48, 74, 98, 100, and perhaps pp. 35, 203, 274.Google Scholar

42. I investigate this ambiguity in “What Is Politike Philosophia?Man and World 17 (1984): 431–52CrossRefGoogle Scholar, reprinted in Phenomenology and the Human Sciences, ed. Mohanty, J. N. (Boston: Nijhoff, 1985), pp. 191212.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

43. NRH, pp. 6, 5962, 114–15, 206207.Google Scholar

44. Republic, esp. 354bl–c3, 506c2–9. Gorgias 509a4–7 with 458a2–bl, 52W6–7 with 464b2–466a3, and 465a6 with Symposium 202a6, 204al–7. Apology of Socrates 20d8, 21b4 (cf. Symposium 175e3); 23bl, 28a2ff., 38a2–6.

45. Compare Thoughts on Machiavelli, p. 299.Google Scholar

46. Strauss himself recommends the former interpretation: NRH, pp. 7, 33, 34, also pp. 16, 56.Google Scholar I do not find that he has justified his assertion that our most urgent need can be satisfied only by means of historical studies, or his suggestion that the problem of natural right must today be a matter of historical (non-Socratic) recollection.

47. An earlier version of this essay was presented at the 79th annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. I benefited from questions and comments directed to me on that occasion, particularly those by L. Berns, F. Canavan, V. Gourevitch, H. Jaffa, and T. G. West.