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ON LEO STRAUSS'S UNDERSTANDING OF THE NATURAL LAW THEORY OF THOMAS AQUINAS * DOUGLAS KRIES Gonzaga University Spokane, Washington IN COMPOSING the introduction to Natural Right and History in the early 1950's, Leo Strauss described the situation in American social science as a division between two parties : the modern liberals of one persuasion or another, who had largely abandoned natural right altogether, and the students of Thomas Aquinas.1 Since the fundamental goal of that book was a recovery of the classical or pre-modern theory of natural right, one might have anticipated that Strauss's work would have been received enthusiastically by the latter group. If nothing else, Strauss and the Thomists were natural allies because they shared the same modern enemies: namely, historicism (the view that all human thought is confined to the immediate historical horizon of the thinker) and positivism (the view that human thought cannot make value judgments, but only judgments about observable matters of fact). Beyond that, Strauss explored very seriously the issues of reason and revelation .and of religion and politics-both of which are crucial for Thomistic political thought. Yet, despite such favorable auguries, a congenial affiliation of *The author wishes to acknowledge the helpful criticisms he received in the preparation of this manuscript from David Calhoun of the Philosophy Department at Gonzaga University. 1 Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), pp. 2, 7. 215 216 DOUGLAS KRIES Straussians and Thomists was never formed.2 Many factors probably contributed to the losing of the opportunity,8 but presumably chief among them was the fact that, even though Strauss's view of Thomas was genuinely respectful, it was not unequivocally sympathetic. Strauss preferred classical natural right theory to modern natural right theory, and he came to the conclusion that Thomas's teaching on natural right-while certainly ' pre-modern ' 4-introduced novelties into the classical position which weakened it rather than improved it. The goal of this essay is to analyze Strauss's reservations about Thomas's statement of the problem of natural right. Such an analysis will, I hope, contribute to a more fruitful exchange between the students of Leo Strauss and those of Thomas Aquinas. I Perhaps the best way to initiate an explanation of Strauss's view of the differences between classical and Thomistic natural right is to contrast the starting points of the two theories. The classical approach begins with what is said about right, with the everyday opinions that are held about what is just. From such an immediate starting point the classical approach ascends toward true knowledge through the process of dialectics. Although all people have views about what is just, in fact such opinions, when examined through friendly disputation with a philosopher, are almost always found to be self-contradictory; however, the 2 This is not to suggest that Strauss was completely ignored and rejected by the Thomists. For an overview of the Thomistic literature which has considered Strauss, see James V. Schall, "Revelation, Reason and Politics: Catholic Reflexions on Strauss," Gregorianum 62 (1981), 349-365, 467-497. s See Ernest L. Fortin, "Rational Theologians and Irrational Philosophers: A Straussian Perspective," Interpretation 12 (1984), 349-350. 4 For Strauss, the fundamental division within the history of political philosophy was between the ancients and the moderns. He understood Thomas to be in the former camp and was critical of contemporary Thomists who, under pressure from the success of modern physics, had attempted to ' modernize ' Thomas by jettisoning his teleological view of nature. See Natural Right and History, pp. 7-8; What is Political Philosophy? (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1959), pp. 285-6. NATURAL LAW THEORY OF THOMAS AQUINAS 217 very fact that one comes to realize that contradiction and seeks to rectify it points to the fact that human beings realize that a more comprehensive, non-contradictory view might be possible. The contradictions thus force one to ascend beyond the opinions that are at best only partially true toward an ever more consistent view, a view based on nature; if such a process could reach culmination , the culmination would constitute a statement of what is right by nature.5 The starting...


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