- Concepts of Nature: Ancient and Modern ed. by R. J. Sneel and Steven F. McGuire
With eight chapters and eight responses, this interesting volume cannot be summarized chapter by chapter here. It promises a dialogue about the concept of nature among "Eric Voegelin, Bernard Lonergan, John Finnis, and . . . Leo Strauss." This listing is in order of presence in the volume. Overall, the volume concerns the move from ancient and medieval conceptions of nature to modern conceptions of subjectivity that tend to marginalize the significance of nature. (Not surprisingly, the previous volume edited by Snell and McGuire for [End Page 381] Rowman was dedicated to subjectivity.) A minority of the authors in this volume—most obviously, James Stoner in his appeal to the fascinating work of Anthony Rizzi—call for a revival of the earlier emphasis on nature. The majority, however, take for granted either that nature's primacy has in some measure been displaced by a kind of primacy of history or culture (those scholars most focused on Voegelin and Lonergan, namely, Barry Cooper, Thomas W. Smith, Glenn Hughes, Randall S. Rosenberg, and Gregory R. Beabout) or by a conception of natural law so indebted to the Kantian revolution that that law's roots are in subjectivity more than nature (those scholars most focused on the new natural law, Melissa Moschella and Christopher O. Tollefsen).
Perhaps because not all of the authors hail from philosophy and theology departments but some from political science departments, another axis of inquiry is in play if somewhat in the background. In the dialectic between nature and history or between nature and culture, there are two obvious approaches offered: the Christian resolution through the person of God and a philosophic questioning of the possibility of a full resolution. The dialectic to which I refer is more clearly expressed in its original form as the dialectic between convention and nature or city and man. That the Christian resolution should predominate in a volume in which Voegelin and Lonergan (as well as Finnis—and here we may also add Charles Taylor [Rosenberg] and to a far lesser extent MacIntyre [Jeremy Seth Geddert and Jesse Covington]—play a pivotal role) is hardly surprising. It is a bit surprising, however, that extended engagement with a nontheistic approach to the human problem (as a manifestation of the dialectic between nature and culture or history or convention) are limited to treatments of Rousseau (Susan Shell) and H. G. Wells (James T. Rubin), that is, to authors for whom a premodern conception of nature is no longer in play. Because Voegelin and Lonergan do such a good job of resolving this problem through the mediation of God (Thomas W. Smith), it can be made to appear to disappear as a problem. It appears to disappear because the forces motivating its resolution, namely, evolution in physics and history in the human, cultural, or existential realm, have seemed to undercut permanently any reasonable appeal to nature in considering the human problem.
The difficulties besetting these attempts to resolve the human problem are evident in two limitations of the volume: the variability in meaning of "transcendence," which plays the leading role in resolving this problem, and the insufficiency of "culture" as a placeholder for prior conceptions of convention, law, and politics. For example, rather than argue that the divine transcendence peculiar to the God of revelation serves as the means of resolving the tension between city and man, Voegelin seeks to find in Greek philosophy precursors to transcendence. In doing so, however, he again seems to be trying to make it appear that the human problem disappears. At least the teaching of the new natural law seems more willing to bear the burden of the novelty of revelation than Voegelin.
When Lonergan comes to terms with the existential dimension in his later writings, he may use the language of existence and history, but when [End Page 382] he includes "culture," we cannot but be dogged by the suspicion that what he means by...