Freedom and the Philosophy of Nature

In my recent lecture on freedom I claimed that the true father of the modern conception of freedom is not one of the great political thinkers such as Hobbes or Locke or Rousseau, but rather the father of modern philosophy in general: Descartes. Descartes’s philosophy, backed up by the spectacular successes of the application of his new mathematics, gave dominance to a non-teleological account of nature. And therefore he and his many successors did not understand human freedom as the ability to understand given ends and to pursue them, but rather as a quasi-creative power, making those ends good which it chose. Thus a key question for settling which conception of freedom is right is the question of the which philosophy of nature is true: the teleological philosophy of nature in the tradition of Aristotle, or the so-called “mechanistic” natural science of the Cartesian tradition.

In the introduction to Natural Right and History Leo Strauss, showing his remarkable ability to  go straight to the fundamental questions, presents the issue as follows:

Natural right in its classic form is connected with a teleological view of the universe. All natural beings have a natural end, a natural destiny, which determines what kind of operation is good for them. In the case of man, reason is required for discerning these operations: reason determines what is by nature right with ultimate regard to man’s natural end. The teleological view of the universe, of which the teleological view of man forms a part, would seem to have been destroyed by modem natural science. From the point of view of Aristotle— and who could dare to claim to be a better judge in this matter than Aristotle?— the issue between the mechanical and the teleological conception of the universe is decided by the manner in which the problem of the heavens, the heavenly bodies, and their motion is solved. Now in this respect, which from Aristotle’s own point of view was the decisive one, the issue seems to have been decided in favor of the non teleological conception of the universe. Two opposite conclusions could be drawn from this momentous decision. According to one, the nonteleological conception of the universe must be followed up by a nonteleological conception of human life. But this “naturalistic” solution is exposed to grave difficulties: it seems to be impossible to give an adequate account of human ends by conceiving of them merely as posited by desires or impulses. Therefore, the alternative solution has prevailed. This means that people were forced to accept a fundamental, typically modem, dualism of a nonteleological natural science and a teleological science of man. This is the position which the modern followers of Thomas Aquinas, among others, arc forced to take, a position which presupposes a break with the comprehensive view of Aristotle as well as that of Thomas Aquinas himself. The fundamental dilemma, in whose grip we are, is caused by the victory of modern natural science. An adequate solution to the problem of natural right cannot be found before this basic problem has been solved. (pp. 7-8; emphasis supplied)

The alternative that Strauss shows as opening up once the decision has already been made for a non-teleological account of nature has been made is a trivial one compared to the original decision. Even if a science of man that is in some sense “teleological” is preserved alongside a thoroughly non-teleological science of nature, the sort of freedom given to man ends up being rather different than the sort of freedom that follows from classical teleology (witness Hegel). The real problem  that needs “an adequate solution” is therefore the problem of teleology in nature.

It is not entirely clear what Strauss himself thought about the issue of that basic problem. He says that he cannot deal with it adequately in Natural Right and History, in which he works (ostensibly) within the confines of “social science,” and does not address the cosmological question. His friend Jacob Klein’s profound inquiries into the significance of modern science, would, I think, have given him the tools he needed had he decided to attempt an answer to the question.

In any case, Strauss is not quite right to say that  “modern followers of Thomas Aquinas” have accepted the anti-teleological conception of the heavenly bodies— not all them have. Charles De Koninck certainly did not. A contemporary thinker, deeply influenced by De Koninck, who has faced the question head on, and given a powerful argument for a teleological cosmology that takes the insights of modern science seriously is Sean Collins. I believe that his 2009 lecture, “Animals, Inertia, and the Concept of Force” (pdf, html), is one of the most important recent works of philosophy.

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Die griechische Logistik und die Entstehung der Algebra

Jacob Klein’s work on the difference between the transformation of the ancient concept of number in modernity, showing how the that transformation stands at the roots of modern science and philosophy, is I think the most illuminating work on modern origins that I have ever read.  Klein’s friend Strauss once wrote the following of Klein’s work:

Klein was the first to under stand the possibility which Heidegger had opened without intending it: the possibility of a genuine return to classical philosophy, to the philosophy of Aristotle and of Plato, a return with open eyes and in full clarity about the infinite difficulties which it entails. He turned to the study of classical philosophy with a devotion and a love of toil, a penetration and an intelligence, an intellectual probity and a sobriety in which no contemporary equals him. Out of that study grew his work which bears the title Greek Logistics and the Genesis of Algebra. No title could be less expressive of a man’s individuality and even of a man’s intention; and yet if one knows Klein, the title expresses perfectly his individuality, his idiosyncracy mentioned before. The work is much more than a historical study. But even if we take it as a purely historical work, there is not, in my opinion, a contemporary work in the history of philosophy or science or in “the history of ideas” generally speaking which in intrinsic worth comes within hailing distance of it. Not indeed a proof but a sign of this is the fact that less than half a dozen people seem to have read it, if the inference from the number of references to it is valid. Any other man would justly be blamed for misanthropy, if he did not take care that such a contribution does not remain inaccessible to everyone who does not happen to come across volume III of section B of Quellen und Studien zur Geschichte der Mathematik, Astronomie und Physik and in addition does not read German with some fluency. One cannot blame Klein because he is excused by his idiosyncracy.

An English translation of Klein’s masterpiece was soon made by Eva Brann, and remains readily available. And a detailed exposition of it has recently been published by Burt Hopkins. But until today the German original remained inaccessible to “everyone who does not happen to come across volume III of section B of Quellen und Studien zur Geschichte der Mathematik, Astronomie und Physik.” But today, having found a copy in the library of the University of Vienna, I made a scan, and have uploaded it here, so that now anyone with an internet connection can read Klein in the original.

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, 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.

John Milbank vs Mark Lilla on the Theologico-Political Problem

I had never heard of Mark Lilla till I read his angry review of Brad Gregory’s book on secularization. Lilla’s review caused a certain amount of stir among the sort of people that are interested in the sort of Christian critique of modernity that Gregory represents (See e.g. Matthew Milliner and Modestinus (with a follow up). Now I thought Brad Gregory’s book was brilliant, and disagreed with Lilla’s critique, but it still seemed to me that Lilla was at least an articulate critic who grasped what was at issue. That is, Lilla understands the sort of critique of Enlightenment liberalism made by the likes of Gregory and Aladair MacIntyr , but still defends liberalism. This would seem to make him a helpful interlocutor with “anti-liberal” thinkers, so I was pleased to find the following debate between Lilla and John Milbank:

It is a quite fascinating debate. Lilla puts the question thus: do human persons legitimately rule themselves (as Lilla holds) or do they rather need a divine warrant for political authority? This is what Leo Strauss used to call “the theologico-political problem.” Milbank’s defense of the anti-liberal position is all right as far as it goes, but it is a bit too soft. Lilla rightly presses Milbank on what exactly politics would look like given his theory, and Milbank is shy of giving any very concrete answer. This is because Milbank is too attached to the positive achievements of liberalism, and is not willing to push his premises all the way to their logical conclusion, which would be a lot more authoritarian than he wants to admit. As an irate commentator on this blog once wrote it’s not really clear how anti-liberal Milbank really is. As Modestinus has pointed out, “postmodern” anti-liberals like Milbank could learn a thing or two from good old reactionary Catholic integralism…

Jacob Klein and the Difference Between Ancient and Modern Thought

Intellectual custom is a second nature. What we are accustomed to seems obvious to us. As Sean Collins has recently reminded us many things which the intellectual culture of our day takes as self-evident are in fact highly questionable positions introduced by the Enlightenment. One area in which this is particularly hard to spot is in our concept of number. Nothing seems so obvious and immediate to us as our idea of number, and yet the ancients had a very different idea of what numbers are than we. Jacob Klein’s Greek Mathematical Thought and the Origin of Algebra tries to get to the root of that difference, and by so doing he gets to the roots of the transformation that gave us modern science and philosophy. Leo Strauss explains:

Nothing affected [Klein and me] as profoundly in the years in which our minds took their lasting directions as the thought of Heidegger. This is not the place for speaking of that thought and its effects in general. Only this much must be said: Heidegger, who surpasses in speculative intelligence all his contemporaries and is at the same time intellectually the counterpart to what Hitler was politically, attempts to go a way not trodden by anyone or rather to think in a way in which philosophers at any rate have never thought before. Certain it is that one has questioned the premise of philosophy as radically as Heidegger. While everyone else in the young generation who had ears to hear was either completely overwhelmed by Heidegger, or else, having been almost completely overwhelmed by him, engaged un well-intentioned but ineffective rearguard actions against him, Klein alone saw why Heidegger is truly important: by uprooting and not simply rejecting the tradition of philosophy, he made it possible for the first time after many centuries—one hesitates to say how many—to see the roots of the tradition as they are and thus perhaps to know, what so many merely believe, that those roots are the only natural and healthy roots. Superficially or sociologically speaking, Heidegger was the first great German philosopher who was a Catholic by origin and by training; he thus had from the outset a premodern familiarity with Aristotle; he thus was protected against the danger of trying to modernize Aristotle. But as a philosopher Heidegger was not a Christian: he thus was not tempted to understand Aristotle the light of Thomas Aquinas. Above all, his intention was to uproot Aristotle: he thus was compelled to disinter the roots, to bring them to light, to look at them with wonder. Klein was the first to understand the possibility which Heidegger had opened without intending it: the possibility of a genuine return to classical philosophy, to the philosophy of Aristotle and Plato, a return with open eyes and in full clarity about the infinite difficulties which it entails. He turned to the study of classical philosophy with a devotion and a love of toil, a penetration and an intelligence, an intellectual probity and a sobriety in which no contemporary equals him. Out of that study grew his work which bears the title “Greek Logistics and the Genesis of Algebra.” No title could be less expressive of a man’s individuality and even of a man’s intentions; and yet if one knows Klein, the title expresses perfectly his individuality, his idiosyncrasy mentioned before. The work is much more than a historical study. But even if we take it as a purely historical work, there is not, in my opinion, a contemporary work in the history of philosophy or science or in “the history of ideas” generally speaking which in intrinsic worth comes within hailing distance of it. (Leo Strauss, “An Unspoken Prologue”)

It is interesting that Strauss sees Heidegger as having enabled Klein to go back to them without reading them through the lens of modern philosophy. In a brilliant letter to Mortimer Adler Charles De Koninck discusses the uselessness of trying to argue with modern philosophers. They have concealed the principles of their thought from themselves. They consider univocism, voluntarism, and nominalism, as simply given for reason; they do not consider that their view is in fact the result of a decision to pursue power instead of truth. Thus the true philosopher can never come to any real meeting of minds with his adversary. In an epilogue to a recent paper I argue that the very radicalism of certain contemporary philosophers allows for a possibility of a discussion which De Koninck did not anticipate. The philosophers I had in mind are certain contemporary “post-post-modern” theorists, but obviously they are all more or less influenced by the “intellectual counterpart of Hitler” who was of such decisive assistance to Klein.