Leo Strauss’s Objections to Thomism

2 Michelangelo S 328

Leo Strauss’s critique of modernity was very penetrating, and there is much to be learned from it. But what are we to think of his idea that modernity was (at least in part) a reaction against St. Thomas Aquinas’s distortion of Aristotelian philosophy, and that thus a true return to the ancients much dis-engage them from their Thomistic mis-reading?

In Natural Right and History Strauss argues the great advantage of the political philosophy of Aristotle and Plato, is that while they thought that the good was objective and absolute, the more proximate rule of action was the relative to what was actually praised and blamed in a given political context:

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.

St. Thomas’s teaching on natural law, Strauss then argues, misses this mean and falls prey to the “Scylla of absolutism.” Because St. Thomas sees the natural law as promulgated in every heart through conscience (or rather synderesis) it is universally binding, and there is thus no room for a discrepancy between what is good absolutely and what is good relative to a particular civil society. Moreover, Strauss argues, the Thomistic teaching on natural law orders all things to a final end which transcends earthly life, and is thus a properly theological account of law. The fundamental precepts of this law are thus the same always and everywhere and can brook no exception.

Strauss thinks that this moral absolutism is inhuman as it leaves to little room for the role of prudence and the situatedness of human life in contingent political circumstances. He sees  modernity as an understandable reaction against this overly theological moral legalism, a reaction however which falls prey to the Charybdis of relativism:

Modern natural law was partly a reaction to this absorption of natural law by theology. The modern efforts were partly based on the premise, which would have been acceptable to the classics, that the moral principles have a greater evidence than the teachings even of natural theology and, therefore, that natural law or natural right should be kept independent of theology and its controversies. The second important respect in which modern political thought returned to the classics by opposing the Thomistic view is illustrated by such issues as the indissolubility of marriage and birth control. A work like Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws is misunderstood if one disregards the fact that it is directed against the Thomistic view of natural right. Montesquieu tried to recover for statesmanship a latitude which had been considerably restricted by the Thomistic teaching. (p. 164)

I recently came across a recording of a lecture which Herbert Hartmann once gave at my alma mater that discusses this argument in detail, and then offers a defense of St. Thomas’s doctrine:


Hartmann’s defense of the Thomistic doctrine goes I think in the right basic direction, but then subtly misses the mark. He argues that natural law is not an extrinsically opposed set of rules to which the human person has to conform, but rather natural law is the voice of reason itself as a participation in divine reason. This is all very well, but then Hartmann tries to argue from this that therefore there is no “set pattern” of the moral life which reason discovers, but rather man himself establishes the rules of moral action by prudent choice.

This resembles the interpretation of St. Thomas which German speaking moral theologians such as Franz Böckle and Alfons Auer gave in the period following Vatican II. Böckle and Auer were trying to defend Catholic moral theology from the accusation of “heteronomy” leveled at it by Kantian ethics, and this lead them to exaggerate the “autonomy” of human reason, giving it a quasi creative power– as though what specified a kind of action as good were prudent choice itself, rather than the order to a due end with which prudence is concerned. Steve Long’s Teleological Grammar of the Moral Act masterfully clears up this confusion.

Similarly, Hartmann’s wish to avoid the Straussian charge of absolutism leads him to exaggerate the variability of morality. He is right that the natural law is not an extrinsic imposition on humanity; it is indeed human reason itself determining about the fitting means to the end of human life. But when he then argues that there is no universally valid, set pattern, of moral rules, he is equivocating on “determine.” Human reason does not “determine” the natural law in the sense of “making it up,” but in the sense of “recollecting” the eternal law, the Wisdom of the Creator in which all things are sweetly ordered.

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6 thoughts on “Leo Strauss’s Objections to Thomism

  1. He is right that the natural law is not an extrinsic imposition on humanity; it is indeed human reason itself determining about the fitting means to the end of human life.

    Isn’t the difference between law and virtue precisely the difference between an extrinsic principle of action and an intrinsic one? “Consequenter considerandum est de principiis exterioribus actuum. Principium autem exterius ad malum inclinans est Diabolus, de cuius tentatione in primo dictum est. Principium autem exterius movens ad bonum est Deus, qui et nos instruit per legem, et iuvat per gratiam.”

    Perhaps natural law isn’t an “imposition” on humanity, but it is an extrinsic principle for the actions: i.e. one acts according to natural law not because it’s “the law” but because acting in such a way is intrinsically good.

    St. Thomas’s defense against charges of absolutism always seems to be that the further a precept of natural law is from “Do good and avoid evil”, the more exceptions it admits.

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    • Hartmann does not in fact deny that natural law is an extrinsic principle in that sense–in fact he quotes the very text that you quote. But I still think he is right to approach Strauss’s argument by looking at the sense in which law is _not extrinsic_. Thinking about it more it seems to me that the notion of natural law that the moderns are really reacting to is Calvin’s.

      Calvin had a lot of right intuitions–he was trying to correct the antinomianism of his day, and his notion of law goes some way toward a recovery of the goodness of creation. But he is hampered by an insufficient metaphysics. Particularly he doesn’t have a clear idea of participation, and therefore he doesn’t understand universal causality, and therefore he doesn’t understand the common good–which is a universal cause in the order of final causality–and therefore law ends up ordering man to what looks very much like an _alien good_. I think that is the sense of extrinsic that is relevant here: being ordered to an alien good.

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  2. I haven’t read NRH in awhile, but wasn’t part of Strauss’ objection to Thomas centered on the concept of synderesis? I recall Harry Jaffa picking up on this as well in his Thomism and Aristotelianism. Basically, Strauss and Jaffa found the concept to be a foreign import from the Patristic period (I believe they sourced it in either Sts. Basil or Jerome) and therefore ruled that it obscured the classical doctrine of natural right by turning it into natural law. Instead of man knowing the hierarchy of ends and then, through the exercise of prudence, devising the means to those ends, man, through the exercise of synderesis, has substantial (albeit perhaps imperfect) access to the means as well. I believe Fr. James Schall attempted to respond to this in his article, “A Latitude for Statesmanship? Strauss on St. Thomas,” but it’s been some time since I’ve read that, too.

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  3. Pingback: For the bold:Moral relativism | Cool lady blog

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