Anastaplo on Strauss, Aquinas, and Heidegger

by Larry Arnhart

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.”

This does not go beyond mere assertion–“as unassisted human reason knows it”!  I have elaborated my thought about this in various posts–for example, here and here.

Mr. Anastaplo has come up in some previous posts here, here, here, and here.

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One Response to Anastaplo on Strauss, Aquinas, and Heidegger

  1. Eli Roberts says:

    There is something questionable and troubling about the way that Arnhart frames the debate here that calls into question the ultimate success of Strauss and Anastaplo’s critique of Aquinas and medieval Christian scholasticism. The phenomenological fact on the ground is that something about the way that Strauss and Anastaplo critique medieval Christian scholasticism that is actually playing into the hands of medieval Christian scholasticism. What Strauss and Anastaplo both do is eliminate the 19th century, Frankfurt School, and Arendtian emphasis on the way that medieval Christian scholasticism legitimate unjust economic structures. By taking economic considerations of the table, Strauss and Anastaplo basically throw the Thomists a 16 inch softball. Arendt mentions Aquinas about eight times in the Human Condition and she is actually willing to critique the monastery of medieval Christian scholasticism in ways that the caution of Anastaplo and Strauss does not allow. Arendt thinks that what Aquinas did was provide the grounding for the “laboring society” by envisioning a society comprised of a basically monastic cadre of monks who discover truth in quietness and stillness and another set of people who turn all their hopes towards “Eternal Life” and engage in machine labor for bare subsistence. Aquinas made labor a duty even though he knew it was not fulfilling.

    The problem with Anastaplo is that he is not working hard enough to make the case the the canon of great books in the western tradition does not lead to conservatism. Under Anastaplo’s reign, the debate between radical enlightenment and medieval Arabic philosophy on the one hand and Thomism on the other has become a de-politicized tennis match between old men. Arnhart fails to acknowledge the appeals of participation in this tennis match and to express his gratitude to Anastaplo for even deigning to take seriously the self-deceptions of Thomistic philosophy.

    If Anastaplo can find the gall to read Pippin closer so he can cast off the effects of Strauss’ shallow reading of Hegel, he may find a more honest treatment of Aquinas.

    Friedrich Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, vol. III

    Hegel, Friedrich, Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy: Translated from the German by Haldane and Simon. Vol III, 1896: Broadway House, London.

    –Walter of Martagne (d. 1174)
    –William Occam (14th century)
    –Julian, Archbishop of Toledo
    –Paschasius Radbertus
    –John Charlier (1363)
    –Raymundus of Sabunde (15th century)
    –Roger Bacon (1294)
    –Raymundus Lullus (b. 1234)
    –John Duns Scotus (early 1300s)

    B. THOMAS AQUINAS (b. 1224)

    –“Born in the Province of Naples, Thomas Aquinas was himself composed a summa theologica(that is, a system), which with his other writings, obtained for him the greatest honor, and which become one of the principle text–books in scholastic theology. In this book there are found, indeed, logical, formalities, not however, dialectical subtleties, but fundamental metaphysical thoughts regarding the whole range of theology and philosophy…


    “All the Philosophy which we first encounter in the Middle Ages, when independent states begin to rise, consist of bare remnants of the Roman world, which on its Fall had sunk in all respects so low that the culture of the world seemed to have come entirely to an end…. The whole effect of the scholastic philosophy is a monotonous one. In vain have men hitherto endeavored to show in this theology, which reigned from the eighth or even the sixth century almost to the sixteenth, particular distinctions and stages in development.

    “After thus dealing with the subject in detail, we must pronounce judgment on the Scholastics, and give an estimate of them. Though the subjects which they investigated were lofty, and though there were noble, earnest, and learned individuals in their ranks, yet this Scholasticism on the whole is a barbarous philosophy of the finite understanding, which real content, which awakens no true interest in us, and to which we cannot return. For although religion is its subject matter, thought here reached such an excessive point of subtelty that, as a form of the mere empty understanding, it does nothing but wander amongst baseless combinations of categories. Scholastic philosophy is this utter confusion of the barren understanding in the rugged North German nature. We see here two different worlds, a Kingdom of Life and a Kingdom of Death. The intellectual kingdom, which is outside and above, while in the popular conception, is thereby brought within the sphere of the mere understanding and the senses, even thoug by nature it is purely speculative; and this does not take place as in art, but, on the fashion of ordinary reality…

    What purpose does all this serve? It lies behind us as a thing of the past, and must continue useless to us on its own merits…It is a singular kind of barbarism, and is not simple and rude; for the absolute Idea and the highest culture have sunk into barbarism, and that through the agency of thought. Thus we have here, on the one hand, the most hideous form of barbarism and perversion, but, on the other hand, the never-failing source of a higher reconciliation. If we seek an immediate contrast to the scholastic philosophy and theology and their methods, we may say that it is be found in “healthy human understanding,” in outward and inward experience, in the contemplation of nature, and in humanity.

    The character of Greek humanity, for instance was that everything concrete, everything that possessed interest for mind had its place in the human breast and its root in the feelings and thoughts of man. Intelligent consciousness, cultured science, has in such content its real material– that in which it is and remains at home with itself; knowledge busies itself on all sides with that which concerns it, and remains true to itself, while both on its serious and its playful side it finds in this material, in Nature…a standard and a guide by which to direct its course. Even should we go astray on ground like this, our errors keep in view the fixed centre-point of the self-consciousness of the human mind, and as errors even they hav ea root therein, which as such forms the justification for them. It is only one-sided withdrawal from the unity of this root with the altogether concrete groundwork and original that is really faulty.

    What we see here, in contrast with the above, is the infinite truth, expressed as spirit, committed to a nation of barbarians who have not the self-consciousness of their spiritual humanity– they have a human breast, it is true, but not yet a human spirit. The absolute truth does not yet make itself real and present in actual consciousness, but men are torn out of themselves. They still find this content of spirit within themselves, introduced as into a strange vessel full of the most intense impulses and desires of physical and intellectual life, but it is like a ponderous stone, whose enormous energy pressure they only feel, but which they neither digest nor assimilate with their own impulses or desires. They thus can only find rest and reconciliation when they come absolutely out of themselves, and they have become fierce and savage in the very circumstances and by the very means which ought to have rendered their spirit peaceable and mild….

    There is thus no “healthy human understanding” in such procedure of the Scholastics, the former cannot oppose itself to speculation, but it can very well take up a position hostile to ungrounded reflection, seeing that it contains a basis and a ruleof guidance for abstract determinations of the understanding. The Aristotelian philosophy is quite opposed to the Scholastic procedure, but ibecame therein alienated from itself. The fixed conception of the supersensuous world with its angels and so on was a subject which the Scholastics elaborated without any regulating standard, in barbaric fashion, and they enriched and embellished it with the finite understanding and with the finite relationships of the same. There if present no imminent principle in the thinking itself, but the understanding of the Scholastics got into its possession a ready-made metaphysic, without the need of making it concrete, this metaphysic was killed, and its parts in their lifelessness were spearated and parcelled out. It might be said of the Scholastics that they philosophized without conception.”

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