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, they saw the more proximate rule of action as 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. (Natural Right and History, p. 162)
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 imposed set of rules to which the human person has to conform. 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.