The Experience of Reading Natural Right and History

I had never read Strauss’s book Natural Right and History (henceforth NRH) from beginning to end until just recently. In the past I tried reading it in its entirety and always got too bogged down early on for one reason or another, and ended up instead just jumping around to the parts that were of greatest interest to me.

I don’t know if that’s a common experience, but assuming that I’m not completely singular in this, I am tempted into the dubious position of disagreeing with the great Harvey Mansfield. I’ve heard Mansfield say in a couple of interviews that he recommends NRH as a good starting point for people interested in learning about Strauss, and I can see why he says so; I’ve realized that the book holds a central place in the work of Strauss, and maybe even in the entire history of thinking about the topic of natural right. Still, I myself believe there are friendlier entry points for beginning to read Strauss, so when asked this is still not my own recommendation for a first book of Strauss for a person to read. My own advice is actually to begin with On Tyranny.

Nonetheless, I’ve come to realize that the person who wants to claim any sort of understanding of Strauss really must, must read NRH, probably multiple times. The book clears up many misunderstandings of Strauss, misunderstandings often propagated not only by Strauss’s enemies, but also by many of his enthusiastic admirers. Not only that, but the book clarifies much about the history and the theory of political and ethical thought. I’ve read many of the books he references in his footnotes — Plato’s dialogues, Xenophon, Aristotle’s ethical and political treatises, Cicero, Aquinas, for instance. Yet, the way he knits them together into a single, seamless, sensible tapestry is astonishing to see. I’ve never had a glimpse of that vista of understanding before. It is up there among the most important things I’ve ever read, and may indeed be one of the most important things a person could read, in my own estimation.

I felt that it would be worthwhile to trace out my own experience of reading through the whole book for the first time, for the sake especially of the person who has never read it in full and doesn’t know what the commotion is all about. I certainly can’t hope to distill all the lessons of the book into a few paragraphs, but to try to do justice to the experience of reading seems a worthy goal in itself. It is an amazing, unparalleled experience.

Let me start with the book’s introduction. The introduction seems to make some astonishing promises to the reader. It sets up expectations that appear impossible for Strauss to fulfill (although, we will see, the book does an improbably good job of proving such skepticism wrong). We must, and Strauss will help us, find our way out of the moral morass of modern thought about justice, not so much through extending any part of the modern project, but rather by showing how the Socratics found a path to knowledge of natural right, a path that already at the beginning substantially encompassed and anticipated and answered the implicit and explicit rebuttals of modern developments. The reader begins, then, with a sense of wonder at the scale of this venture, and also a measure of doubt that Strauss, or anyone, could accomplish what Strauss has set out to do. There may be a suspicion, or a fear, that Strauss’s stated goal may not be his real goal, that his exoteric aim is unattainable through no fault of his own and must conceal some esoteric purpose for the writing, not because he has signalled any such thing but only because that scheme would allow him to escape the trap he has apparently set for himself and still emerge relatively blameless from the encounter.

Chapter one embarks into the mind of the historicist, one of the two modern intellectual enemies that Strauss tells us he has set out to undo in this book. This first chapter is very light on footnotes. The enemy is largely a faceless enemy. Who is the historicist? It’s hard to say, Strauss tells us. There’s still work to be done in writing the history of the emergence of historicism, and that is not Strauss’s business here. Or so he suggests. He proposes to lay out not so much the history of the movement, but rather the intellectual structure of the thing, its philosophical starting point and its logical development. In a way, he asks us to take on faith that he is correct in his ability to recognize historicism in the form it has reached in his day, and in his ability to trace its conclusions backward through its justifications to its genesis. For the reader who is willing to grant him this much, the chapter does feel quite illuminating. The historicism he describes is something recognizable as an intellectual force even today, more than half a century after he wrote, and the account he offers of how it presents itself and defends itself is sympathetic and careful, even as he tries to point out some of its implications and natural outgrowths that will seem untenable, problematic, contradictory, or unsupportable.

Chapter two seems to me like the most difficult, and perhaps (if I may say) the most poorly-written part of the entire book. Strauss attempts to address a contemporary version of positivism as exemplified in Max Weber. The footnotes here are abundant with references to the works of Max Weber. The very end of the chapter returns to Strauss’s lucid, grand account of the relation of big ideas and their tensions and developments. Much of the chapter, however, descends into the fine details of Weber’s arguments and his mode of expressing himself, jumping back and forth somewhat erratically between summary and sympathetic elaboration and impassioned denunciations. Strauss has some important points to make, I think, but it almost feels like the writing of the chapter was rushed. He is straining to show the problems with Weber’s account, from the inside, without needing to appeal to premises that are alien to Weber’s own thought and thus too easily batted aside as irrelevant to Weber’s conclusions, but he is for this reason forced to speak in ways that do not come easily to him and is constantly seeming to second-guess himself and correct how he articulates his objections. There are many obvious and familiar objections he could have made to Weber, but he did not allow himself to take the easy way out, and so the reader is brought along on a difficult and sometimes tedious journey. Perhaps on future readings of this chapter its interior coherence will be clearer to me, but in any case it is not an easy read, and the reader might come away from it with a sense of confusion and uncertainty.

Still, at this point in the book we have a clear sense of the magnitude of the task facing the defender of classical natural right doctrine, perhaps made even more acute by the sort of floundering that takes place in attempting to say what exactly is wrong with Weber’s account of human knowledge. More than this, the reader has begun to hunger for the classical account of natural right, to wish that the classical account could give an answer, could lead us to a view of justice that transcends modern objections, even if it now looks more than ever dubious that such a thing could exist or could succeed. And that is when we enter the third and fourth chapters of the book, the central chapters. I will treat them as a unity, since they clearly belong together and depend on one another. (Incidentally — these chapters helped make clear to me that the way I had previously treated this book, jumping around to the interesting parts, is precisely the wrong way to read it. Strauss will often argue persuasively for a conclusion of classical political thought, before showing a few pages later why that conclusion was recognized by the ancients themselves to be incomplete or inadequate in itself, which propels him into the next stage of the argument. This is a book that must be seen as a whole to be seen at all.)

Chapters three and four are Strauss at his very best. They are an exhilarating, exciting, masterful journey from the human world before philosophy, through philosophy’s first inroads, to the triumph of Socratic political doctrine. The chapters are heavy with footnotes, and each footnote documents multiple classical sources for each of the steps of the argument. For the person who has read widely in the classics, there will be nothing unfamiliar in any of its individual parts, but those parts are pieced together here with an unbelievable fluency, each point leading to the next with a nearly irresistible inevitability, all of classical political thought seemingly swallowed up into this careful march from the first hints of philosophy to its fulfillment in Socratic thought. The steps are numerous, but the reader is pulled willingly along. I could hardly put the book down while reading through these chapters. By the end of chapter four, it is hard to doubt that Strauss has already accomplished the impossible task he set for himself at the beginning of the book, to make Socrates’ insights speak to us in language that is true to the classics and also comprehensible and compelling to the modern reader. Yet Strauss is not yet finished, and the reader is glad.

Having given us our present moment in the first two chapters, and the ancient past in the subsequent two chapters, Strauss will now bridge the gap to describe the road by which we were led from the latter to the former. After an exceedingly brief comment on Thomism at the end of chapter four, chapter five presents itself at first glance as a chapter about John Locke, though we soon learn that a treatment about the significance of Locke for modern political philosophy must begin with a discussion of Hobbes, of his own importance for the history of political thought and in particular his importance for the philosophical achievements of Locke. At this point NRH is no less insightful than in its third and fourth chapters, and yet it has lost some momentum. I no longer had the same headlong sense of being unable to put the book down. We feel a little as though we’re merely tying up loose ends now, having already accomplished the most important task by thinking through the Socratic project under Strauss’s guidance.

What I’ll say about chapters five and six is that they do offer us the confidence that we have seen clearly how it was possible to move from Socrates and his followers to the historicists and Weber by a long and slow process. In Hobbes already the seeds of those later developments are visible with Strauss’s guidance. The section on Locke, somewhat surprisingly to me, is where Strauss gives the greatest attention to his characteristic themes of esoteric writing and the tense incompatibility of biblical faith and philosophical inquiry. Rousseau and Burke represent noble attempts to overcome modern political philosophy but in ways that only lead us closer, in the final accounting, to historicism and nihilism.

There is certainly much that remains unsaid in this book. Strauss is constantly making comparisons and drawing connections between the philosophical eras that he discusses, and yet still the reader will have to expend some effort to fill out those connections and contrasts, and to see the other ones of which Strauss was surely aware but which he did not get around to explaining here. Furthermore, even within individual chapters, Strauss begins many thoughts and leaves them incomplete as he transitions to the next point. I have a strong sense that there are important implications that need to be drawn out that he never came back around to state explicitly himself; I have this feeling especially in connection with chapter four. Still, even without having yet filled in any of the blanks that Strauss left, I am certain that the knowledge explicitly imparted in this book is some of the most intelligent and important that can be learned. This book is the skeleton for which all of Strauss’s other work supplies the flesh. It lays out, I am tempted to think, all (or almost all) of the most important political problems and their alternatives that have been encountered by the great minds of our history. It’s a book I plan to read many more times, and to study with all the care I am capable of.

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