Natural Right and History (Leo Strauss)


Strauss, Leo. Natural Right and History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957.

This is a pivotal book by a world-class intellect.  Strauss discusses the genealogy of “rights” talk from the ancients to the present day.  He doesn’t really offer a program on how to move forward, but that’s not really his point, either.  Before we can work on human rights today, we need to know what the phrase means.

The difficulty in speaking of “natural right” is that we moderns are so far removed from the ancients.  They knew man had a telos. Nature is connected to the universe’s natural end (Strauss 7).

Strauss identifies the two main opponents of natural law: positivism (aka, university sociology departments) and historicism.  The former assumes the fact/value dichotomy, which doesn’t allow us to make value judgments on a particular society. The upshot is you can’t say a particular society is embodying the Good.  In fact, you can’t say good at all. That distinction breaks down, though. Even if a Weberian refuses to make a value distinction, he is working within his own framework of values and he filters the evidence through those values.

The Story of Natural Right

Prephilosophical man identified the pleasant with the good (83).  The right way is our custom. Philosophy begins when we doubt this ancestral code. Applied more broadly, this creates problems: if many communities’ ancestral codes are different, which one is right?  This forces us to search for the Good.

The ancient philosophers generally began to see that “nature” is the “actualization of a human possibility which …is trans-historical, trans-social, trans-moral, and trans-religious” (89).

Classic Natural Right

All knowledge presupposes a horizon (125). This pushes us to a view of the whole, which means we cannot rest with any single community code. To help them in their quest, the classics employed the term Politeia. It means constitution, but it means more than simply a legal code. “It is the factual distribution of power within the community” (136). It is a way of life determined by a form of government.

Here is where it gets interesting.  The Politeia should not act unjustly. This means it can’t engage in things like deception during war.  Therefore, we need a world-state to outlaw war! Seems rather extreme. In any case, the solution “to the problems of justice must transcend the limits of political life” (Strauss 151).

Variations of Natural Right

Aristotle: the relation of virtue to human nature is like that of act and potency (145; Ethics 1097b24).

Platonic: giving to everyone what is due to him according to nature (Republic 331c1-332c4).

Thomistic: principles of the moral law.  Points to man’s moral and intellectual ends.

Modern Natural Right

Hobbes: teleology is impossible. We do not begin with the nature of man, but in prima naturae (180).  Everyone is guided by the fear of death. The state, therefore, is not to safeguard virtue but simply protect our negative rights. 

Strauss then offers a penetrating critique of Hobbes.  Hobbes built his philosophy on the extreme cases, when the social fabric has broken down. We fear the violent death.  Yet Hobbes also said that the fear of violent death is sometimes overridden by heroism, virtue, charity, etc. Therefore, his principle isn’t universally valid.  In fact, it isn’t valid in the extreme case at all. Therefore, it is useless (196). Remember that scene in Batman where the Joker plants bombs on the ships to see who will blow it up first?  That scene is a complete refutation of Hobbes.

The Problems with Modern Rights

Burke pointed out that participation in political power “does not belong to the rights of man, because men have a right to good government, and there is no necessary connection between good government and government by the many.”  If anything, the rights of men point to a natural aristocracy (298).

That’s good.  Unfortunately, Burke held to the British sensualist view of art, which specifically denied a connection between intellectual beauty (e.g., mathematical proportions) and sensible beauty (312).  The result is an emancipation of sentiment from reason

Recovering Natural Right

Man’s true freedom requires “ends of a certain kind,” which must be “anchored in ultimate values” (44).


One thought on “Natural Right and History (Leo Strauss)

  1. Pingback: Edmund Burke: Lectures French Revolution | The Correctness of our Sentiments

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