On April 21, some graduate students and faculty in political theory gathered at my home for a discussion–led by George Anastaplo–of Chapter 4 (“Classic Natural Right”) of Leo Strauss’s Natural Right and History. Many of us there were in the spring graduate seminar at NIU on Strauss, and so this discussion continued some of our discussions in that seminar.
Mr. Anastaplo chose to concentrate his remarks on the two pages where Strauss comments on Thomas Aquinas (pp. 163-64). Mr. Anastaplo has now posted the written text of his remarks on his website.
This was a good choice of topics, because most of the students in my Strauss seminar had also been in my fall seminar on Aquinas.
At least two of the points that Mr. Anastaplo makes here are related to topics that I have taken up in various posts.
The first is Mr. Anastaplo’s suggestion that Aquinas might have been a secret writer:
“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.”
Mr. Anastaplo’s thought here is remarkably similar to the argument of Tom West that Aquinas was a secret writer who had to be cautious in expressing his doubts about Christian doctrines. Last summer, I wrote a series of posts on West’s reasoning.
If Aquinas can be read as suggesting the possibility of a natural law based purely on natural experience, without any need for appealing to Biblical revelation, that natural law might have been grounded on an Aristotelian biology of human nature. I have developed this thought in various posts–for example, here, here, and here.
The second point that catches my attention in Mr. Anastaplo’s statement is his comment about Strauss, moral virtue, and Heidegger:
“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 thinkingabout 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).”
In our discussion at my home, some of us pointed to the troubling passage in Natural Right and History (151) where Strauss says that “the man who is merely just or moral without being a philosopher appears as a mutilated human being.” This has become one of the fundamental teachings of Straussianism–that the philosophic life is the only good life by nature, and that moral life is not good in itself, because it has only instrumental value in serving the philosophic life. In our discussion, Mr. Anastaplo defended Strauss on this point. But here in this statement, Mr. Anastaplo suggests that Strauss is open to criticism on this point, and the case of Heidegger illustrates the problem–someone who cannot see moral reality cannot be a serious thinker.
Moreover, as I have indicated in previous posts, I am disturbed by the dogmatic way in which Strauss and the Straussians assert the superiority of the philosophic life over the moral life with very little supporting argumentation. Notice the way Strauss speaks in the passage quoted by Anastaplo: “intellectual perfection or wisdom, as unassisted human reason knows it, does not require moral virtue.”