Natural Right And History Leo Strauss Term Paper

Length: 10 pages Sources: 1+ Subject: Black Studies - Philosophy Type: Term Paper Paper: #74574263 Related Topics: Moral Relativism, Medieval Woman, Fine Art, Existence Of God
Excerpt from Term Paper :

Strauss and Nature

Strauss is contending that the "self-evident" natural rights of man are no more apparent because of a creeping relativism in thought and an increasing dependence on legalism. Thus, "the legislators and the courts" decide what is "right" and what is not. In a sense, the lament of Strauss for the loss of common sense, especially regarding what is naturally good and lawful is appreciable. It is just. On the other hand, it could be argued that the "natural right" that Jefferson believed in was not as "self-evident" as imagined but rather more imaginary than "self-evident." Strauss asserts that this line of argumentation is the result of the subjectivist attitude and perspective of modern philosophy. While subjectivism is a deadly form of philosophy and kills all sense of truth, as Plato shows in Euthyphro, it is the natural consequence of what Strauss identifies in his last sentence of this passage: "If there is no standard higher than the ideal of our society, we are utterly unable to take a critical distance from that ideal." In other words, if there is no objective standard by which we can judge (i.e., an objective truth), we are doomed.

Strauss is arguing here for that objective standard, for the fact that truth can be self-evident, that something which is natural and right can be comprehended and can be unchanging from one generation to the next, for, as the ancients taught, truth is unchanging. It may be said that he is arguing for universalism or for the one, the good, the true, and the beautiful -- the transcendentals identified by Plato. What he is arguing against is the subjectivist viewpoint that morality and principles are simply that which a society agrees upon as being good. This viewpoint is inherently false and dangerous, because it suggests that if a society agreed that cannibalism was good, then cannibalism would be good. Rather, Strauss suggests, that individuals may choose to think cannibalism good and many in a society may act as though it were a good -- but they would be wrong, every last one of them, because in reality there is a higher standard to which men must submit their hearts and minds and wills. This is the essence of religion and philosophy, but modern philosophy is rooted more in an obfuscation of truth or in a reshaping of truth according to one's own perspective rather than in a desire to know or to understand the truth, as Socrates possessed. In this sense, Strauss is less a modern and more a classicalist.

The subject he addresses also raises the question of innate ideas. If something that is "self-evident" such as a natural right is unchanging and manifest to all who use their reason in order to discern an objective law in nature concerning mankind and society, the question becomes, how is it self-evident? Are we born with this information written on our souls, or is it something that we grow to understand? If the former, then there are likely ramifications regarding theology and philosophy. If the latter, then the subjectivists may have a point.

The limits of human perception and cognition are those of human reason. This question was posed by medieval scholastics like Aquinas, who asserted that human reason alone could not comprehend all the mysteries of the world but could only approach them and deepen the understanding of them. In a way, they are like the skeptics of today, except skeptics question the extent to which we can know anything at all. Ultimately the medievalists argued that certain things would remain mysteries, but they did not deny the value and/or use of human reason.

It could also be argued that the medievalists had the correct valuation of human reason. The intellect is capable of discerning reality, but there are some things that cannot be discerned. The five senses can work in conjunction with the intellect to perceive reality and truth, but they are not able to discern all things. This then raises the issue of revelation and reason and the relationship. If some things can be known, that is are self-evident, and other things that man knows (but only by way of divine revelation), the issue becomes more complex. What if something that is revealed is not self-evident and in fact contradicts the "natural rights" that Jefferson speaks of? Jefferson was by no means an orthodox Jew or Christian, but rather was shaped by enlightenment philosophy. What then should be made of his perception of self-evident...


If consciousness as a part of human life is part of an evolutionary process, it might be argued that consciousness is headed towards some kind of final evolutionary change. If consciousness is part of human life as created by a deity then it might be argued that consciousness is inevitably religious and therefore headed back towards God. This latter viewpoint appears to be the viewpoint of Socrates in Plato's Dialogues. It is shared by the great philosophers of the medieval world. It is only in the modern world that the concept of God becomes dubious. Moderns tend to be skeptical of anything that reason cannot fully comprehend, which is perhaps a holdover from the age of Rationalism, or Enlightenment.

In one sense the question of Innatism is a question of objective vs. subjective reality. It proposes an examination of the connection between men's minds and the outside world that informs them. Implicit in the discussion is the question of the existence of God -- for if mankind is born with the ability to intuit truth, or to confirm the identity between his intellect and reality, then he could perhaps arrive at conclusions concerning the moral law, the moral order, and his spiritual nature. If, on the other, no innate ideas actually existed, and man was compelled to learn everything a posteriori -- after the fact -- as though he were a blank slate at birth, and could experience the world only through his own subjective perceptions -- then his confirmations about truth were only indicative of his own subjective experience. Subjectivity thus battled with objectivity, and a priori arguments battled with a posteriori arguments.

Freud discusses innate ideas in this context when suggesting that severe upbringing will have an unconscious affect on a child: "What it amounts to is that in the formation of the superego and the emergence of a conscience innate constitutional factor and influences from the real environment act in combination" (131). Freud asserts that our minds are shaped by what goes on around us and though we may not be born with certain innateness, it can develop over time or be planted in us by parents, etc. Thus, how we know things or what we think we know can be molded by lived experience. But is this not a subjective rendering of epistemology? And are we not concerned with objective truth rather than with the subjective experience of it? It is important to distinguish between the two, and that is what Strauss appears to suggest at the beginning of Natural Right and History.

Strauss stresses this idea again later when he states that "the idea of natural right must be unknown as long as the idea of nature is unknown," (81) and this claim certainly appears logical. If rights come from nature, then a comprehension of the order of nature must be had before any objective claim regarding rights can be made. Jefferson likely had such comprehension, but in the technological age, the Age of Industrialization, generations have been divorced from nature, and nature's order has been lost on those same generations. It is a separation from what is naturally ordered that has had a lot to do with the subjectivization that Strauss laments. Strauss pits knowing nature inside the arena of knowing philosophy, arguing that the Old Testament does not know nature. This claim could be disputed, because it appears that often in the Old Testament, an understanding of human and earthly nature is inherent, implicit. Because the Book is billed as Revelation, however, it is easy to claim that it has no philosophy, but this is not the case and any Old Testament scholar would argue this point.

Nonetheless, Strauss does appear to have a logical reason for appealing to philosophy in order to understand what is nature. Hannah Arendt does the same in The Human Condition, though she does so in her own subjectivist way, defining man and what it is to live according to her own terms rather than submitting to the terms used by the ancients and applying them to today. Arendt describes the three fundamental human activities of vita active as labor, work, and action, giving a definition of each and showing how it applies to the human condition

Sources Used in Documents:

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. IL: University of Chicago, 1998. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. NY: Vintage, 1995.


Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. NY: W.W. Norton, 2005. Print.

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