- Toward 'Natural Right and History': Lectures and Essays by Leo Strauss ed. by J. A. Colen and Svetozar Minkov
While Natural Right and History (1953) is the political philosopher Leo Strauss's most-read book, its overall argument, as contributors to the present volume note, is not easily grasped. In keeping with its historical theme, Strauss probes and compares the pertinent views of Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Burke, Max Weber, and others—though not strictly chronologically. His presentation of "natural right" (and its nonidentical twin "natural law") is not straightforward either, but intricately dialectical—following the give-and-take he discerns among those authors. Is there a clear path, Colen and Minkov and their fellow contributors wonder, through his book's formidable thicket of argument?
From Strauss's unpublished papers pre-1953, the present volume assembles, edits, and explicates various anticipations of the 1953 book's argument. These offer windows into its gradual development. The volume's six edited writings, each with a lucid introduction, mirror corresponding chapters in Natural Right and History. The result is a series of three-way conversations. Readers are led from a contributor's précis raisonné of an edited writing to the writing itself and from there to a comparable chapter of the finished book, and back again as needed.
Strauss's "What Can We Learn from Political Theory?" (1942) anticipates the conspicuous absence of "theory" in his book's introduction. As Nathan Tarcov points out, the introduction merely argues that rejecting natural right has "disastrous consequences," without promising that recovering natural right would give political action concrete practical guidance. The 1942 writing justifies Strauss's avoiding [End Page 626] application-oriented "theory" altogether, for the Platonic-Aristotelian reason that "there is a universally valid hierarchy of ends, but … no universally valid rules of action"—since deciding what to do "here and now" means considering not only which end is "higher in rank, but also which is most urgent in the circumstances."
What Daniel Tanguay calls the "paradox" permeating the 1953 book's opening chapter and beyond is first formulated in "Historicism" (1941). Namely, whereas historicism's attempt to fuse philosophy with history leads to philosophy's disappearance, hence to nihilism, Strauss counters that only history rightly understood—including understanding the ancient philosophers as they understood themselves, independently of our modern skepticism—can free us from parochial presuppositions about both philosophy and history. In 1941 as in 1953, Strauss thereby turns historicism against itself.
J. A. Colen shows how "The Frame of Reference in the Social Sciences" (1945) explains Strauss's seemingly gratuitous appeal to a "natural frame of reference" in his 1953 chapter critiquing Weber's fact–value distinction. Weber sought to deal objectively with conflicting principles "of right or of goodness" by treating those "values" as mere "facts," albeit admitting indirectly that "values" as such recur surreptitiously in the social scientist's ephemeral selection of "facts" to consider. With an eye to Aristotle, Strauss replies that since social science is "forced to transcend the self-understanding of the various societies … [t]he best solution would be a frame of reference … defined by the purpose of society, or by the natural hierarchy of its purposes."
In Christopher Lynch's succinct description, "On the Study of Classical Political Philosophy" (1938) "lays out the centrality of education and persecution as they function within the tense relationship between freedom of thought … and society … in both modern and classical philosophy … with special emphasis on how to approach the study of the 'classics' examined in the central chapter of Strauss's [book]."
Svetozar Minkov considers both "The Origin of Modern Political Thought" (1937) and its corresponding 1953 subchapter as provisional stages in the trajectory of Strauss's engagement with Hobbes, from The Political Philosophy of Hobbes (1936) to What Is Political Philosophy? (1959). The pivotal issue is whether Hobbes as the founder of modern natural right is a "subconscious" believer in justice in the full and original sense despite being...