The only extensive discussion of Thomas Aquinas in Leo Strauss’s Natural Right and History (1953) is during the transition in the book from “Classic Natural Right” to “Modern Natural Right.” That passage begins thus (at page 163):
The Thomistic doctrine of natural right or, more generally expressed, 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. In definiteness and noble simplicity it even surpasses the mitigated Stoic natural law teaching. No doubt is left, not only regarding the basic harmony between natural right and civil society, but likewise regarding the immutable character of the fundamental propositions of natural law; the principles of the moral law, especially as formulated in the Second Table of the Decalogue, suffer no exception, unless possibly by divine intervention [G.A.: as perhaps may be seen in the attempted Sacrifice of Isaac?].
Among the consequences of the kind of shift noticed here is that natural law is more apt to be used among us today than is natural right (something evident, by the way, in the title “correction” by law review editors in 1993 of an article of mine, “Natural Law or Natural Right?,” so as to read, “Natural Law or Natural Rights?”).
The availability to Thomas of what he evidently considers reliable revelations permits him to recognize moral precepts that can be acted on virtually without exception. This is in marked contrast to the Strauss reading which had included these observations (p. 162):
The variability of the demands of that justice which men can practice was recognized not only by Aristotle but by Plato as well. Both avoided the Scylla of “absolutism” and the Charybdis of “relativism” by holding a view which one may venture to express as follows: There is a universally valid hierarchy of ends, but there are no universally valid rules of action.
Further on, Mr. Strauss can suggest (p. 163), “The only universally valid standard is the hierarchy of ends,” ends which should take into account what may be “most urgent in the circumstances” (p. 162).
The Thomistic (if not, generally, the Christian) approach to these matters can be usefully compared to that of, say, the young Moses Maimonides who responded, in his Letter on Apostasy, to a desperate inquiry from a North African Jewish community that was facing a dreadful ultimatum, “Convert to Islam or die.” Those vulnerable Jews were advised by Maimonides that they could (indeed, should) do much to seem to convert if that would permit them to survive in order to return eventually to an open practice of their ancient faith. Maimonides, exercising on that occasion a prudence that Aristotle would probably have endorsed, could dismiss as a “fanatic” another (older) rabbi who had insisted that this community should become martyrs to their faith, a rabbi who may have been unduly influenced by the greater openness of both Christianity and Islam to martyrdom as the gateway to that eternal personal bliss that Jews have always seemed far less sure of.
These observations might suggest for some a question about how well Thomas understood Aristotle. This is not to deny, of course, that the Thomistic commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics may be the best available. But it can be wondered what a millennium and more of Christian experience and expectations had done to the grasp in the West both of human nature and of the requirements of prudence.
A clue to Thomas’ limitations here may be found in how he comments on the discussion, in Book One of the Nicomachean Ethics, of the question whether the Dead are affected by what happens on earth to their descendants. Of course, whether the Dead thus care (as Achilles, in Hades, is presented in the Odyssey as very much caring about his son’s earthly exploits) does depend in part on whether the Dead live beyond the grave. Thomas so reads the relevant passage in the Ethics, however, as to be able to ignore what Aristotle may be discreetly suggesting there about the temporal limits of human life.
Leo Strauss seems to indicate that Thomas helped prepare the way to modern natural right. Particularly important here may be the Christian reliance upon the conscience, or synderesis (and hence upon constant access to divine guidance?), something that Aristotle (among others in antiquity) had not considered available enough to rely on. And this access may be seen to contribute to that emphasis on the individual that can be said to be critical to modern natural right.
Mr. Strauss observes (p. 164) that “intellectual perfection or wisdom, as unassisted human reason knows it, does not require moral virtue.” I have chanced to question this assumption, particularly in my identification of Martin Heidegger as “the Macbeth of philosophy.” That is, I have been moved to wonder about the ultimate reliability of any serious thinking about critical philosophical questions by anyone as morally flawed (that is, as unable to see critical moral realities) as Heidegger was revealed to have been (a presumptuousness on my part which may even seem to question therefore the Straussian lifelong commendation of Heidegger as a remarkable Thinker, indeed as perhaps the greatest in the Twentieth Century, however dreadfully flawed he turned out to have been morally).
Aristotle, it can be recalled, has been said to be the teacher of Alexander the Great. But what, we must wonder, could Alexander, who turned out to be remarkably flawed, have truly learned from Aristotle? He did sense, it seems to me, that Aristotle would not have approved of much that he had come to be and hence to do, an awareness on his part reflected in the report by Plutarch that Alexander (without any reliable evidence) came to suspect Aristotle of plotting his overthrow from a great distance.
The remarkable astuteness of Thomas Aquinas, in dealing competently with one subject after another across decades, might even make one wonder what he “really believed.” I myself somehow gathered that Leo Strauss, in his last years, came to suspect that the remarkably intelligent and learned Thomas Aquinas he had come to know must have had more reservations about the religious orthodoxy of his day than he considered it responsible to make explicit. This would permit us to question, among other things, the story that has Thomas eventually repudiating his massive intellectual accomplishments as mere “straw,” an assessment that might even call into serious question any Faith that may have seemed to require such an apparent absurdity.
These remarks, of April 21, 2012, were prepared for the graduate students in a seminar on Leo Strauss’s Natural Right and History (1953) offered by Professor Larry Arnhart at Northern Illinois University. See, for the challenging work of Professor Arnhart, his blog, Darwinian Conservatism.