Archive for the ‘on Leo Strauss’ Category

With the welcome publication of the important Recovering Reason: Essays in Honor of Thomas L. Pangle (ed. Timothy Burns, here)  we now have an accessible bibliography for those of us interested in the work of a true exemplar of the philosophic life, its depth and its joy.  This post merely transcribes said bibliography.

(Note 1: For an important lecture by Professor Pangle on the nature of Socratic Political Philosophy following Leo Strauss see here . Only viewable on the Windows Platform).

(Note 2: For a recent interview by the Jack Miller Center see here . )

(Note 3: Those seriously interested but unable to have access to most of these works, specially in developing countries, contact me.)

Bibliography of the Published Work of Thomas L. Pangle

Montesquieu ‘s Philosophy of  Liberalism; A Commentary on The Spirit of the
Laws. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Review of Charles Yost’s The Conduct and Misconduct of American Foreign
Policy. Yale Review 62. no. 4 (June); XVI-XVIII.

Review of R. Hackforth’s Plato’s Phaedo, Phaedrus. and Philebus. American
Political Science Review 68, no. I (Mar.): 258-260.

Review of John Stuart Mill, The Later Letters (4 vols.) edited by Francis E.
Mineka and Dwight N. Lindley. Yale Review 63, no. 1 (Oct.): VIII-XII.

“England After 1832.” The Yale Review 65, no. 1 (Oct.): 143-46. (Review
essay of Collected Works of Walter Bagehot, edited by Norman St. John
Stevas. The Political Essays, Vols. V-VIII.)

“‘The Political Psychology of Religion in Plato’s Laws.” American Political
Science Review 70. no. 4: 1059-77.

“The Moral basis of National Security: Four Historical Perspectives.” In
Historical Dimensions of National Security Studies, edited by Klaus Knorr.
307-72. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas.

Review of Eric Voegelin’s From Enlightenment to Revolution. Political Theory
4, no. 1 (Feb.): 104-08.

Review of G. M. A. Grube’s Plato: Republic. American Political Science Review
71 no. 3: 1336-37.

“Rediscovering Rights.” The Public Interest 50 (Winter): 157-60. (Review
essay of Ronald Dworkin’s Taking Rights Seriously.)

“The Period of Cold War.” The Yale Review 67, no. 2 (Dec.): 289 -92. (Review
essay of Daniel Yergin’s The Shattered Peace.)

Review of Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars. American Political Science
Review 72, no. 4: 1393-95.

Review of D. J. Manning, Liberalism. American Political Science Review 72,
no. 4: 1380-81.

Review of Melvin Richter’s  The Political Theory of’ Montesquieu and David
Carrithers’ A Compendium of The Spirit of the Laws. Political Theory 6, no
4: 567-69.

“A Note on the Theoretical Foundation of the Just War Doctrine,” The Thomist
43, no. 3: 464-73.

Review of W. B. Gallie’s  Philosophers of Peace and War. Review of
Metaphysics 33. no. 2.

The Laws of Plato, translated with notes and a book-length interpretive study.
New York: Basic Books.
Review of Charles Beitz’s Political Theory and International Relations. Review
of Metaphysics 34. no. 1.


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Review of:

Abraham Lincoln: In His Own Words

(Taught by David Zarefsky, The Teaching Company)

Professor Zarefsky’s course provides us with an incredible opportunity. He opens the doors to an in-depth encounter, not with what others thought about Lincoln, but rather a much more powerful and intimate encounter with what Lincoln himself actually said and, through his words, with what he did. He gives us the gold, not merely the bronze. Lincoln, “in his own words”; such is the adventure. And, if it is true that the greatest leaders in speechcraft are perhaps the greatest leaders in statecraft, then Professor Zarefsky provides an entrance into the nature of political greatness, of political insight and of political decision-making themselves. In this respect, to be able to follow the paths which bring forth the birth, development and death of a great leader, is precisely what is made available by the course to us. Professor Zarefsky’s detailed and erudite knowledge of Lincoln’s life and his famous speeches ——-as well as Zarefsky’s own personal rhetorical abilities (!)—— enhance the encounter in such a way that  the very silent words of the pages come into the proper realms of both dialogical argumentation and constrained action from whence they arose. We face the dilemmas Lincoln faced, we search for the possible solutions which Lincoln sought, we come to humbly appreciate his limitations, we can see much more clearly the decisions which Lincoln actually had to ponder and make in the solitude of the chambers of power. And to know that this unique experience is available to all of us via the internet is absolutely a welcome possibility.

More specifically; perhaps what is of the utmost value in the course is the very conscious recovery by Zarefsky  of the art of rhetoric which has come under very severe attack by “Modernity” (Hobbes, Machiavelli, Locke) given its desire to contrast itself as far superior to the ideals of the classical Greek and Roman political philosophy and political practice in which the art of rhetoric itself was born, critically analyzed, and made an integral part of the political education of the best of citizens. Or to put it more fairly, by way of  this kind of course one could actually come to understand the very basis of what distinguishes modern from classical rhetoric in both its means and ends; for instance, the rise of a type of “revolutionary” rhetoric in modernity which knows of little-to-no moderation in its practice. In allowing us to better understand the value and political relevance of this art, Zarefsky allows us to gain a greater respect for the call of the statesmen and stateswomen of our time. To learn to develop the capacity to rightly persuade diverse audiences at diverse times and under varying circumstances, such an art has rarely been more developed by any leader than Lincoln. For surely the capacity to write transforms, clarifies and prepares the writer himself for the practical complexities of political life filled with a multiplicity of constraints which a potential, but careless leader, will instead eliminate as cumbersome and irrelevant. Such a path may lead not to greatness, but to the worst of tyrannies and their terrifying defense of silence. This difference between our modern relation to the art of rhetoric and that of previous times perhaps is nowhere better exemplified than in the recounting of the nature of the audience which heard the Lincoln-Douglas debates which lasted for hours on end. It seems nobody was bothered, but rather cheered along as if cognizant in some way of the very basis of our nature as political animals who seek to be actively involved in the discussion of those matters of great importance. Perhaps the debates in the presidential campaign Obama-McCain have brought back this desire in some citizens of the USA, but the return of the value of rhetoric in the political arena in modernity still has to be defended by courses such as this  which clearly show that the greatness of a leader is in part due to his love of argumentative language and style, in part due to the desire to be able to go into dialogical argumentation in defense of certain —in some cases—- flexible positions, and in part due to the nature of the type of self-understanding which the written words allows not only for the author himself but, even more importantly for us, centuries later. For the words left to us by Lincoln bespeak of the permanent transhistorical questions, not merely of this and that dilemma, in this or that epoch. Herein lies, as Zarefsky points out masterfully, the overwhelming permanence of Lincoln’s stunningly short “Gettysburg Address”: “it is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us”.

And, moreover, if this rhetoric is connected directly to a supervaluation of the virtue of political moderation   —seen very early on in Lincoln’s “Temperance Speech”—- then truly in his work  and life  one finds perhaps the avenue for an understanding of the dangers of “rhetorical” radicalism in its diverse immoderate-ridden, demagogic and incendiary  versions. Perhaps allowing myself a personal remark, it is this immoderation that characterizes the president of the neighboring country to my troubled Colombia and his continuous calls for war. For surely listening to the monologue of a leader for  hours, cannot be seen as comparable fundamentally to listening to Lincoln for 2 minutes. And it is without a doubt such moderation ——and particular the  desire to be moderate particularly after Victory (as Churchill likewise said, “In Victory: Magnanimity”) —— that makes Lincoln stand so high above us and above so many leaders of our age. The praise and cultivation of such a virtue in the political sphere under specific circumstances, stands as a permanent contrast with the punitive approaches developed in recent history. A crucial example is that of the excessive retributory decisions made in Paris 1919 against Germany which, in part, further developed the seeds for an even more tragic World War years later. (more…)

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Review of:

Masters of Greek Thought: Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle

(Taught by Robert C. Bartlett, The Teaching Company)

We surely must be grateful to Professor Bartlett’s incisive reflections on the nature of Socratic political philosophy as representing a modern viable alternative to our political and philosophical self-understanding. This alternative takes its path upon a close determination of what the “Socratic revolution” ——-which moved Socrates towards a perspective closer to the self-understanding of the citizens themselves——- might mean. And it is surely extremely helpful to have a more public on-line presentation of the ideas developed by Professor Strauss and his students for those of us interested in their interpretation of Aristophanes, Xenophon (virtually forgotten in academia for very specific reasons), Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

As an insider’s comment/joke, one could definitively say that this course —and going back to my mother tongue—– can be easily regarded as “el número uno”! The presentation is clear, concise, humorous and generally thought-provoking (particularly if one considers the accompanying guide as well). Professor Bartlett takes great pains to reconsider in each of his lectures the previous arguments and paths developed; and he usually ends his timely lectures with certain puzzles for the listener to continue exploring the problems revealed in the text themselves, rather than by providing a set doctrines (e.g., the “platonic doctrine of the ideas”) that could be just repeated endlessly. In this respect, the recovery of Plato’s work as a consisting of DIALOGUES with a specific audience in mind, with specific characters in play and under specific situations aids us IMMENSELY in trying to understand what at the start might be tedious, bad and irrelevant lines of argument. Something similar must be said for Bartlett’s interpretation of Aristotle’s “manner of writing”. Besides, he constantly provides examples taken from everyday life which may allow the listener to move from their simplicity to the depths of the questions addressed to us by the Classical Political Philosophy tradition. As a matter of fact and to go back to one of his favorite examples, I actually found a wallet on the street during the time I spent going through this course. I must confess the course immediately made me want to give the wallet back wholeheartedly as I had become more just, just by listening!

Of course, questions remain, and given the breadth of the course, important gaps also remain which just could not be filled (a serious one being the “jumping over” the virtue of moderation in the Nicomachean Ethics) . But perhaps the fundamental question for the course remains the Straussian interpretation which might be seen to try to “square the circle”. If ——-as we are pointed to again and again——- the Socratic revolution stems from a reconsideration of the political nature of our praxis and our reflections (particularly as regards the question of the divine and the search for a “scientific” explanation of the order of the universe as in the pre-Socratics), then this means that the political sphere is once again given its due dignity. That is to say, one cannot philosophize without encountering in dialogue the Ischomachus of our lives as Xenophon recounts arguing that it is in this very precise conversation that Socrates SAW the philosophical need for such a revolution. But this impulse to bring forth back the dignity of the political is not always easily set along the more fundamental axis of the arguments presented by the Straussians, namely, that even though the political has the aforementioned dignity, it truly remains FAR below the possibilities which the life of reflection, the life of philosophy, opens up to the citizen who starts to move towards a self-critical stance of such dignity-ridden (but perhaps self-enclosing) elements. In other words, one could ask whether to say that there is much dignity in ‘x’, but that really the dignity of ‘x’ is only visible once it sees beyond its confines, ends up throwing a massive question as to the real dignity of ‘x’ itself. Of course, this is much more evident in Plato’s Republic than in his LAWS given the metaphor of the cave and its constant allusion to the SHADOWS which make up our political reality. But this could also be seen to be true in Aristotle in the following way: though Aristotle indeed leaves behind such complex equations as the third wave of the Republic which identifies philosopher and ruler (see for example Book II of the Politics), still in Book X of the Nicomachean Ethics he apparently seems to run into the same difficulties of trying to “square the circle” by showing that the life dedicated to the moral virtues, life which has a certain dignity of its own, is truly only worthy of a very secondary notion of happiness. I believe this places a massive question as regards the fundamental argument of the course, namely, that it is the Socratic revolution —his “Second sailing”—– which makes possible the very work of Xenophon, Plato and Aristotle.

And also in a similar respect, the course fails to place its interpretation among other competing interpretations which seem to fundamentally disagree with the political nature of Socratic thought. Straussian interpretations are many a time “outside the academic norm” and perhaps this course does not do enough to emphasize this crucial differentiation. In this respect, one seems not to see much of Aristophanes’ humor amongst academics nowadays. In a similar light, one need ask why it is that so few “philosophical dialogues” are actually written to day by those who are considered the “philosophers” of our time. In other words, shouldn’t reading Plato move US to write dialogues as he did?

A final massive difficulty that is pointed to, worked upon and reworked endlessly by the always helpful and rhetorically talented professor Bartlett is the choice made by Socrates to actually drink the hemlock. Although Bartlett considerations of the Crito, the Phaedo and the Apology are absolutely enlightening and profound, one has the feeling that this foundational act which determines the very memory of Socrates has to be further developed by all readers on their own.

Finally as regards what one can only wish for; THE TEACHING COMPANY would do very well in asking Professor Barlett (or Professor Pangle) to provide us with a course which FOCUSES solely on THE LAWS of Plato and the NICOMACHEAN ETHICS of Aristotle. It is my belief that we are in much need of a more public defense of the arguments presented in THE LAWS as the basis for a critical questioning and defense of our liberal democracies. In terms of the NICOMACHEAN ETHICS (from the Straussian perspective) the public could have a better understanding of the diverse moral virtues and the inherent dilemmas they present, as well as a consideration of why Aristotle was moved to write 2 ETHICS rather than only one, if one includes the Eudemian Ethics as one should. Moreover, THE TEACHING COMPANY should consider translating some of its courses so as to reach a wider audience interested in these fundamental topics.

All in all, an absolutely impressive course for which we ought to be very grateful indeed.

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Reflections: Response to “El Tiempo” columns 7: Comentario a Francisco Cajiao: “Educar para la Política”, febrero 17 de 2009.

Debo decir que es casi siempre un verdadero placer leer sus columnas. Su profundo conocimiento de las dinámicas educativas de Colombia es admirable.

Ahora bien, considero que en su columna sobre educación para la política hay varios elementos de gran importancia. Ante las actuales dificultades políticas que vive nuestro país —y las conectadas dificultades éticas y educativas—— usted invita al lector, en parte, a hacer un recorrido histórico hacia los griegos. En este sentido usted, muy prudente y acertadamente, indica que hay al menos dos elementos a considerar. Citándolo directamente dice usted:  1. “La política es el comportamiento fundamental del ciudadano. Política viene de polis (ciudad). Por eso, cuando se habla de competencias ciudadanas es necesario entender que ellas deben conducir a la formación política. …. el ciudadano debe aprender desde su infancia a discriminar lo que conviene para el bien común, de acuerdo con un orden ético y jurídico.”,  y 2. “Siempre, desde la antigua Grecia, se consideró la educación como el medio privilegiado para fortalecer la democracia, formando ciudadanos libres, capaces de discutir sus diferencias y propuestas mediante el ejercicio de la razón. Por esto, el ágora es el espacio privilegiado de la política.”

Al primer elemento le podemos dar el nombre famoso de republicanismo clásico en la medida en que el ser humano según Aristóteles es por naturaleza un ser político. El segundo elemento que usted enfatiza acertadamente es lo que podríamos llamar la importancia de una educación liberal para los griegos. Lo cierto es que en su conjunto estos dos elementos indican una parte de las bases fundamentales de la reflexión filosófica sobre la política que encontramos principalmente en la obra de Aristóteles, que a su vez está respondiendo de manera directa, y también indirecta, a las reflexiones políticas y filosóficas por parte de Platón y su maestro Sócrates. Pero como veremos, estos dos elementos no subsisten de manera tan armónica como podríamos pensar, y sobretodo como podríamos desear, en tanto modernos. Es decir, en tanto modernos nos parecería obvio que, si  logramos dar con el adecuado tipo de educación política, entonces lograríamos llevar o transferir a la realidad esas conclusiones, los resultados de dicha investigación, como base de un proyecto político definitivo de fundamentos universales y generalizables. De esta manera, entonces la práctica y la teoría se retroalimentarían de manera beneficiosa para ambas de tal manera que la justicia se encarnaría como nunca antes. Algo así sí creyó posible todo movimiento marxista/socialista/comunista (y más aún el leninista/stalinista que es modelo aún para las afiebradas FARC) con su consigna de transformación total de la realidad tal y como aparece formulada de manera dramática en las breves y famosas Tesis sobre Feuerbach del propio Marx: (“Tesis 11: Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”.)

Pero me temo que semejante proyecto que cree que la educación política puede adquirir real vida y guiar decididamente “desde arriba” (e incluso militarmente) el quehacer político contrasta radicalmente con el verdadero realismo filosófico-político de los grandes pensadores políticos griegos Platón, Jenofonte y Aristóteles (posteriormente complementados por la obra de Cicerón para los romanos). No puedo entrar en detalle aquí, pero por ejemplo, el ejercicio dialógico que presenta La República de Platón, cuyo tema es la pregunta de su interés, es decir, la pregunta por la virtud de la justicia (virtud fundacional de lo político en tanto que nos remite al “bien común”),  invita no a que fundemos una ciudad realmente gobernada por aquellos filósofos políticos o líderes que supuestamente sí han logrado ver el verdadero esquema educativo a seguir, sino todo lo contrario, invita a ver en cierta medida el por qué de las limitaciones profundas y serias de creer que la teoría puede llegar a tener semejantes efectos sobre la realidad política de cualquier ciudad o de cualquier comunidad política. Es más, al comienzo del drama que es este diálogo fundacional entre Sócrates y dos interesantes jóvenes (Glaucón y Adimanto) con intereses políticos diversos, Sócrates mismo es forzado a permanecer en la discusión contra su propia voluntad. Posteriormente en el diálogo Las Leyes Platón retoma de nuevo las intrínsecas limitaciones de lo político comenzando esta vez su investigación desde el lenguaje propio  de lo político. Por ejemplo, los interlocutores son ahora hombres mucho mayores, ya no de Atenas sino de una ciudad extranjera debido a la peligrosa complejidad de las preguntas propuestas, hombres de la “tercera edad” que además deben beber un poco de licor (!) para poder incluso dar arranque al diálogo mismo acerca del complejo rol de las leyes y de lo divino en la fundación de una comunidad política.

Pero incluso, bajo cierta interpretación, también los últimos dos libros de la Política de Aristóteles revelan una posición similar; no hay allí un modelo que podamos simplemente copiar e instaurar en la realidad. Por el contrario, revela esta obra de manera magistral un cierto dualismo claramente jerarquizado indicando, a la vez, tanto la importancia del ámbito político como igualmente las limitaciones inherentes a dicho ámbito humano, limitaciones que sólo se vislumbran desde  la filosofía política  misma. Y una concepción similar ocurre en La República de Cicerón. Además, siglos después, Santo Tomás Moro siguiendo el mismo modelo escribió su Utopía que de nuevo es un ejercicio para percibir los límites de lo político desde el lenguaje de la filosofía política, no un manual de cómo llevar a cabo transformaciones definitivas en la “realidad”.

Esto es lo que se conoce, en el lenguaje de una corriente interpretativa que toma como base la obra de Leo Strauss, como el debate entre el “utopianismo clásico” que se enfrenta decididamente al “idealismo moderno”. Se resume dicho debate, y disculpe que no lo traduzca, de esta manera:

“classical political philosophy  conceives the “best regime” not as an ideal to be realized, nor even something to be approached and worked toward; the elaboration of the best regime is intended, rather, as a subtly playful thought-experiment meant to reveal the limitations of what we can expect from all actual political philosophy” (Pangle, Thomas, Leo Strauss: An  Introduction to his Thought and Intellectual Legacy, p. 46)

Es decir, sea lo que sea que aprendamos de los filósofos políticos griegos, resultará nocivo el no intentar ver sus escritos en sus propios términos. Es más, el pensamiento político clásico es la vacuna precisamente contra el  complejo deseo, por parte de cierto tipo de seres humanos,  de instauración de la justicia total y verdadera en el ámbito real de la política ciudadana. El siglo XX nos dio múltiples ejemplos de los desastres al intentar llevar a cabo cierto tipo de proyecto secular radical a como de lugar (Stalin, Mao, Khmer Rouge,  …. FARC). El periódo del terror bajo Robespierre que se desprende de la Revolución  Francesa de 1789 nos lo revela igualmente. Es decir, el deseo de encarnar un proyecto totalizante de justicia terrenal (piénsese en el resultado de “aplicar” el “Libro Rojo” de Mao para los ciudadanos chinos) , y un cierto deseo inmoderado, violento y hasta tiránico, parecen estar conectados de maneras que el racionalismo político griego nos permite entender mejor. Para estos últimos no puede haber una reconciliación final entre filosofía y política; es más, es gracias a esta fructífera tensión inevitable que garantizamos tanto cierta moderación real en la praxis política, como la creación de unos líderes/ciudadanos hasta cierto punto libres de falsas expectativas y deseos destructivos con respecto a un cierto ordenamiento legal que ellos encarnan y del cual descienden. Como usted lo pone: “el ciudadano debe aprender desde su infancia a discriminar lo que conviene para el bien común, de acuerdo con un orden ético y jurídico.” Pero además esta valiosa tensión “garantiza” la aparición en escena de aquellos individuos filosóficamente preparados en la tradición clásica que puedan generar interpretativamente dos proyectos diferentes, a saber,  la más profunda explicitación de las bases que fundamentan un proyecto político dado (piénsese por ejemplo en el valor que los straussianos le dan a los “Founding Fathers” de los Estados Unidos),  explicitación que a la vez  les permite de esta manera poder juzgar sana y prudencialmente —– al igual que criticar seriamente—— los progresos y/o retrocesos del ordenamiento mismo desde su fundación.  Un ejemplo de dicha postura dual sería el entrar a considerar críticamente la Constitución del 91 más allá de una simple defensa progresista. (more…)

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Reflections: Leo Strauss on moderation and the extremisms of Colombia

As one regards the politics of  extremism  ——–both in word and in action—– which guide the reality of our Colombia (whose most grotesque example is ANNCOL), one cannot but hold firm to the words with which Strauss brings to a close his “Liberal Education and Responsibility”:

“We must not expect that liberal education can ever become universal education. It will always remain the obligation and the privilege of a minority. Nor can we expect that the liberally educated will become a political power in their own right. For we cannot  expect that liberal education will lead all who benefit from it to understand their civic responsibility in the same way or to agree politically. Karl Marx, the father of Communism, and Friedrich Nietzsche, the stepgrandfather of fascism, were liberally educated on a level to which we cannot even hope to aspire. But perhaps one can say  that their grandiose failures makes it easier for us who have experienced those failures to understand again the old saying that wisdom cannot be separated from moderation and hence to understand that wisdom requires unhesitating loyalty to a descent constitution and even to the cause of constitutionalism. Moderation will protect us against the twin dangers of visionary expectations from politics and unmanly contempt for politics. Thus it may again become true that all liberally educated men will be politically moderate men. It is in this way that the  liberally  educated may again receive a hearing even in the market place (note: in the sense of ‘agora’).” (Liberalism Ancient and Modern,  p. 24)

Those extremists of the word who mock our president as if the presidency were simply a man and not one of  the foundational institutions of our democratic stability (for who will not feel entitled to mock the presidency now, no matter who holds it? no matter if for the right reasons?), those extremists who defend in silence and in word the practice of kidnapping of civilians by the corrupt and savage FARC who just this week killed aboriginals with total disregard for justice, decency, courage  and nobility (deaf as deaf can be to the, now very old,  news of Marx’s overwhelming failure), those extremists who because of their “sacrifices” claim that they alone are the ones who truly love their country, those extremists who might be tempted by the appeals of endless tyranny,  those extremists who have left Colombia and forsaken her to whatever future, those extremists of the intelligence that do not even know of the “market place” of which Strauss speaks above, those extremists who will find any way to defend and rationalize the growth and commercialization of narcotics (for legalizing an activity without a foundational long-standing education towards the common good seems utterly dangerous)  and specially those extremists —specifically those who have given the honor and privileges of being called “officers” of the nation—- that hold that recklessly using the force of the state against its own citizens by bypassing the laws of the country and bringing shame to the very foundations of our important military institutions is a possibility; all these extremists of the mind and of the heart  should take to heart Strauss’s words. For if not, Colombia’s chance for history, nay, Colombia’s chance for recognizable recovery and truthful admiration, might be lost to time.

Ironically, Colombia seems to need a new kind of politics; the politics of intelligent and firm moderation —–not to be confused with a politics of the extremism of  tolerance for we DO NOT TOLERATE, specially inhumane, senseless and cowardly kidnappings (as our courageous President Uribe does not tire of arguing), but also extra-judicial assassinations by those whose apparent self-righteousness is simply a disguise for their self-aggrandizement and recognition at whatever cost.

Such is the politics towards which  the reading of Strauss, and his contemporary student Thomas Pangle, leads. But such a reality can only come about through liberal education, and the above quote reveals some of the dilemmas inherent in this type of education. Be that as it may, our country lacks a liberal education which “may again receive a hearing even in the market place (note: in the sense of ‘agora’).

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One of the main reasons why an understanding of the relationship between ‘natural right’ and ‘conventional right’ must be high in the hierarchy of activities we engage in, lies in that its consideration brings to light the difficult issues of relativity between, and criticality of, different political communities. The extremely compressed passage in which Aristotle takes up this relationship is full of difficult lines, lines which are themselves enlightened by sometimes perplexing examples. In it, one could say, Aristotle seems to move back and forth from one kind of right to the other; uncomfortably trying to delineate the space which lies between them.

The tension between both kinds of right leads to an array of difficult questions which come to light precisely out of the opposition in which they stand. On the one hand, if political justice is wholly conventional, one is necessarily led to ask; is it not then doomed to be variable to the extent that, what a given community considers to be just, is just as valid as what any other does? Will the question of justice not be reduced to a prior question, namely, ‘whose justice’ are we speaking of; justice becoming then a relative term? This is more problematic because if, as Aristotle holds, law shapes our very being, then, “stepping aside” to critically assess the regime which seeks to foster precisely its own outlook, seems a rather difficult, if not impossible, course of action. In other words, if one’s tradition determines to a large extent what one considers to be just, how is it possible for “us” to reach some kind of ‘objective’ standpoint from which our own and other conventional conceptions of right can be judged? Must tolerance be reduced to a passive acceptance of difference, independent of the ethical considerations and violations underlying such diversity?

On the other hand, if one holds onto a natural view of political justice, then although one can claim to be able to assess all conventional right by measuring it to a common ground, a standard to which all political communities have access in virtue of something common to all humans (e.g. rationality), still the position is not itself without difficulties. First of all that ‘common something’ seems contested by the different traditions themselves. But besides this, if all perspectives can be assessed by way of this standard, still, how to figure out and agree upon what is the fundamental nature of such standard is by all means not an easy task. Is it grounded on a transcendental ideal to which only few have access? Is it to be found in the natural order of things? Does it follow alone from divine revelation? Is it ultimately, particularly for us moderns, simply a matter of promoting and defending some group of basic inalienable human rights and duties (perhaps to be supplemented by different kinds of group differentiated rights for minorities)? Or, if it is indeed based on a distinctively human capacity such as reason, how is one to conceive of this rationality —- be it that of classical thought or that of the Enlightenment—— other than by acknowledging it as part of a specific tradition which has come to understand itself in such ‘rational’ terms? What guarantee do we have that when assessing other cultures by way of some form of natural right, we are not simply, though disguisedly, projecting the values of our own? Finally, what is the relationship between philosophy, born out of a particular tradition, and the search for this critical space in which the city, and all cities for that matter, come to be questioned? (*1)

The complexity and importance of the issue under consideration is well put by Strauss:

“If there is no standard higher than the ideal of our society, we are utterly unable to take a critical distance from that ideal. But the mere fact that we can raise the question of worth of the ideal of our society shows that there is something in man that is not altogether in slavery to his society, and therefore, that we are able and hence obliged to look for a standard with reference to which we can judge the ideals of our society as well as any society” (NRH, 3) (*2)

To question is part of our nature, but indeed it would be rather absurd to try to answer all these mind-boggling puzzles in a short essay like this. Nevertheless they stand as avenues that can be pursued, some of which we will begin to pursue here only tentatively. But before proceeding, I would like to make two cautionary remarks. The first deals with the idea that whatever conception of natural right is ultimately available to us moderns, its grounding cannot proceed from the imitation of a given hierarchical ordering of a purposeful universe which we admire in its beauty and inherent goodness; an external teleological reality which, by shaping ourselves according to it, allows our own human beauty and goodness to flourish. Nature for us moderns is not a mirror we model ourselves upon. As Charles Taylor puts it with respect to the creative imagination found in art’s capacity to transfigure reality:

“it becomes possible for us to see a crisis of affirmation as something we have to meet through a transfiguration of our vision, rather than simply through a recognition of some objective standard of goodness. The recovery may have to take the form of a transfiguration of our stance towards the word and the self, rather than simply the registering of external reality” (SotS, 448) (*3)

The second prefatory point is that, even though the search for such a ‘objective’ standpoint ——-which is somehow or other implied in the notion of natural right—– is of great importance in judging and differentiating unjust regimes, as well as individuals, from just ones, that this ‘natural’ standard can ultimately be found is another matter altogether:

“our aversion to fanatical obscurantism must not lead us to embrace natural right in a spirit of fanatical obscurantism. Let us beware of the danger of pursuing a Socratic goal with the means, and the temper of Thrasymachus. Certainly the seriousness of the need of natural right does not prove that the need can be satisfied” (Strauss, NRH, 6) (*4)

Having said this, and in order to get somewhat clearer on the relationship between conventional and natural right, I would like to divide the essay into two sections. In the first I will look at the difficult and compressed passage in the Nicomachean Ethics where Aristotle deals directly with the subject matter; chapter seven of the Book on Justice. There I will try to follow Aristotle’s own struggle with the issue by looking and trying to elucidate, as far as possible, the arguments and examples given to us readers. In the second section I will take up two of the most prominent interpretations of the passage; one by Saint Thomas Aquinas, the other by Marsilius of Padua. I will there try to, briefly and in outline, show that neither does justice in their reinterpretation to the complexities found in the first section where the text by Aristotle was considered. To conclude this section, I will likewise question some of the arguments put forward by Strauss in his search for a middle road between these conflicting interpretations.


Aristotle is the first to point out that when speaking of the just, one can do so in many ways. For instance one can consider, either general justice (1129b12 ff.), or a part of this general form, that is to say, particular justice and its distributive and corrective aspects. Some even speak of justice in terms solely of the relation of the parts of the soul and its health (1138b1 ff). Furthermore, one can speak of justice with reference to the different domains in which relationships between agents take place. In this sense political justice is not the same as the justice appropriate to the household; relations between citizens, for Aristotle, are not the same as those of inferior kind that hold between husband and wife, master and slave, and father and son (MM, 1194b5 ff.). (*5)

Besides, it is not just any social organization which meets Aristotle’s criteria for being considered political. This is why in the chapter immediately preceding the one dealing with the relationship between conventional and natural right, Aristotle points out the conditions for the politically just. It

“obtains between those who share a life for the satisfaction of their needs as persons free and equal … hence in the associations where these conditions are not present there is no political justice between members, but only a sort of approximation to justice” (1134a26-8)

This seems rather puzzling. We have not even begun to attempt to determine what natural right might be, and yet Aristotle has already set up a criteria for the consideration of the political, namely, equality and freedom between participants who share at the same time in being ruled and ruling (1134b16-19). Now, if political justice develops under these conditions, and if it is true that “if anyone wants to make a serious study of the fine and just things, or of political science generally, he must have been well trained in his habits” (1095b2-4), then truly few regimes will be able to carry out such an inquiry, namely those in which such equality and freedom already exists, in some sense or other. Presumably a tyranny could not then reflect on the politically just precisely because the conditions for its appearance are in it wholly lacking. But let us look closer then at this very specific type of justice, that is to say, political justice.

In the Magna Moralia, even though one finds the bipartite differentiation between the just things, on the one hand by nature, and on the other by convention, there what is considered to be politically just is reduced only to the realm of the conventional:

“so the just according to nature is better than the just according to convention, but what we are inquiring about is the politically just; and the politically just is that which is by convention, not that which is by nature” (MM, 1194a1-4)

It seems as though in that work Aristotle is skeptical of finding any such natural justice within the political. But this position is altogether different from what Aristotle himself holds in the corresponding passage of his Nicomachean Ethics.

The conflict between both is strikingly made evident from the very first line where we are told that the division between natural right and conventional right IS set, unlike the previous quotation, within the overall discussion of political justice (1134b18-19). Perhaps why this difference exists can be somewhat understood by looking at the passage more closely.

In it, Aristotle first defines natural right as “that which has everywhere the same power and does not depend on being opined or not”. The “naturalness” of natural right resides precisely in its being independent both of spatial and temporal differences —-it is in a sense transhistorical and transcultural——, and of the multiplicity of conflicting opinions held by different humans. Natural right is truly something unchanging, or so it would seem. Suspiciously, Aristotle here gives no example to elaborate upon.

Conventional right, in contrast, can be seen in three interrelated forms. First it refers to “that with regard to which in the beginning it makes no difference whether matters are this or that way, but once it is established one way or another it does make a difference”. An interpretation could be as follows. For instance, in the downfall of a regime or in its early periods of consolidation, some aspects of conventional right can go in many different possible ways. It is ‘up for grabs’, so to speak. But once it has been set down as law, it determines (to a large extent in a negative form) what is to be considered just and what unjust. And here, unlike the case of natural right, Aristotle aids us somewhat by providing some examples. These refer specifically to laws regarding some aspect or other of war, the ransom of prisoners, and of religion, the number and nature of animals to be sacrificed. (Would it be too exaggerated to read these then as portraying how relativity appears foremost and most dangerously in the realm of the defense of one’s community and in religious strife?) Perhaps another example of this type of conventional right could be the national symbols of different states. Colombia’s or Canada’s flag could presumably have been otherwise, but now that they have been set in place it does make a difference if someone were to attempt to modify them in one way or another. In the religious realm for instance one could say it makes a great difference if one is brought up as Catholic or as Muslim (*6).

As a second field of conventional right Aristotle points to legislation that takes place in particular cases; private laws which for instance require sacrifices for outstanding, honour-deserving individuals such as the sacrifices for Brasidas, a spartan general (Penguin, 371). Conventional law then seeks to put forward legislation which acknowledges the sacrifices of some distinguished people who, for the sake of the political community, have sacrificed themselves and therefore “ought to be given some reward, honour or dignity. It is those who are not satisfied with these rewards that develop into despots” (1134b6-8). A similar contemporary example of this type of ‘conventional right’ would be the changing of the name of a city street to remember a given person ——for instance, in Montreal, the ‘Rene Levesque Avenue’—– however this example is not closely linked to law itself. (*7)

Finally the third category is that of ‘things passed by vote’. Although it is not clear to me what Aristotle refers to, perhaps one could think of cases such as the referendum in Quebec. If it had gone through, matters would now stand a quite different light. Aquinas sees this category of conventional right as referring to the decrees of judges (1022). If this is the correct way to understand it then examples of these type of decisions can be seen in multicultural societies where different conventional understandings require the transformation of the positive laws already set in place. As Parekh puts it:

“In all these cases person’s cultural background made a difference to his or her treatment by the courts. The law was pluralized and departures from the norm of formal equality were made in different ways and guises, showing how to reconcile the apparently conflicting demands of uniformity and diversity” (Parekh, BCCD, 200)

Having given us a first look at the differentiation between natural and conventional right, Aristotle then proceeds to argue against those who believe that the politically just is only what is conventionally just; a position with which he himself sides, as we saw in the Magna Moralia. Aristotle continues his argument as follows: “but in the opinion of some, all things are such on the ground that what is by nature is unchangeable and has everywhere the same power, just as fire here and in Persia burns, but they see that the just things change”. Fire burns equally in Greece and in Persia, but what the Greeks and the Persians take to be ‘the just’, varies considerably. And furthermore, if what we said at the outset concerning the conditions of political justice is true, then Persia does not meet the conditions for speaking of political justice at all. This because of their not sharing in freedom and equality. Having chosen Persia in the example, therefore seems not to have been by luck.

Presumably Aristotle would go on to tell us, finally, just precisely how this standard, which natural right is, works. But to our disappointment this is precisely what Aristotle proceeds NOT do; or at least fully. Instead he tells us that all natural right is in fact just as changeable as conventional right. Or, he pauses, almost always, he says. That is, natural right seems unchangeable in reference to the gods, the celestial beings which for the Aristotle, as Aquinas reminds us (1026), are unchanging. But to our surprise once again the statement is qualified; even in divine matters the unchangeability of natural right is only ‘probably’ so. In this sense, as we shall see, Aristotle’s Gods do not fit well with Aquinas’. But leaving this question aside, for our purposes it is important to point to the changeability that Aristotle makes characteristic of natural right; the tranformability of that standard through which we aim somehow at ranking conventional understandings of the just. As Aristotle puts it, among us humans (*9): “while there is something by nature, it is ALL changeable and yet nevertheless there is that which is by nature and that which is not by nature”. The variability of natural right does not preclude its remaining to a degree invariable. The standard, if it exists at all, would then seem to resemble not an iron pole, but a more flexible structure such as that of a rubber band; capable of transforming itself without necessarily becoming something other that that which it is.

And while we stand rather perplexed by all of what has bee said, Aristotle, one feels almost jokingly, tells us that all this ought to be as clear as daylight: “now, which is by nature of the things that can be otherwise and which is not, but is instead conventional and by agreement, since both of them are equally changeable is CLEAR”. Well perhaps it is not. However, unlike the previous definition of natural right which excluded variability, this new qualified perspective is indeed, finally, followed by an example. But it is an extremely odd example, one which seems rather removed from the discussion of the politically just. It goes like this: “by nature the right is stronger though it is possible for everyone to become ambidextrous”. Few words which make one wonder what Aristotle is getting at.

Our first reaction could be to say; but look around you, there are many left handed people, for instance my brother –in–law, for whom the left hand is by nature the strongest. Is their left hand not ‘by nature’ the strongest? So Aristotle, what you are saying is not at all true (*10). Unfortunately our first objection seems made irrelevant if one looks at the corresponding example found in the Magna Moralia. There the same example is put forward, but with the notion of superiority left on the side: “yet nevertheless the left is such and such by nature, and the right is no less better than the left, even if we were to do everything with the left as with the right” (MM 1199b31-34). Aquinas understands this example as showing that natural right is valid in the majority of cases, but in some few cases it does not hold (1029); a position to which we shall return in the following section (*11). But perhaps there is another way to comprehend this flexibility of natural right, while having its kind of flexibility not partaking of the same type which characterizes that of the conventional.

One imaginative, perhaps too imaginative, way to do interpret the example, though this is not what Aristotle himself says, would be as follows. By nature most of us are indeed right handed, and some left handed. But being left handed or right handed takes no extraordinary effort on our part; we are so equipped by nature one way or the other. Aristotle himself has told us that we are equipped as humans in just the very same way not only as regards the different faculties of the soul, namely, the vegetative, the desiderative and the rational (1102b28ff), but likewise in the case of the potentiality to develop the moral virtues of which he says we are “constituted by nature to receive them” (1103a29). But although this is true under normal conditions, still few seek to modify what is given to us by nature, transforming it so that new, more complete organizations, can be achieved. Becoming ambidextrous, through a habitual practice involving throwing with the other hand (MM 1194b27), is just such a practice which changes what is, without making it something wholly different. In a similar way, the passage alluded to above, the one concerning the moral virtues, culminates by telling us that “their full development is due to habit”. Becoming virtuous transforms us in that, what we are potentially capacitated to do, reaches its utmost level of actualization. If one can imagine those who have indeed attempted to become ambidextrous, one can imagine the patience and personal commitment required in order to achieve that end which represents a flourishing towards higher natural completeness. And this end goes beyond utility and survival, though perhaps ambidextrous people will be more helpful under certain circumstances, for instance in the case of strikers in soccer who, because they can use both legs to hit the ball, can score more goals. This end involves, in a sense, a healthier realization, a completeness comparable to works of art (1106b9). It would be a little like becoming fully bilingual, not an easy matter, assuming that is that one learns the language not simply as a child. Unfortunately our imaginative analysis seems far removed from what Aristotle argues in the passage considered, for the passage as a whole focuses principally on political justice, not on individual health. (*12) But perhaps some regimes are healthier than others; some regimes fighting against all odds in order to become more readily ambidextrous.

Aristotle goes on to exemplify how, in contrast to the variability of the natural, so too the conventional has its own kind of variation. The conventional is now defined as that which “is by agreement and what is beneficial”. The appearance of the beneficial, which had not entered into the argument previously, seems to determine natural right contrastively as that which is not primarily concerned with utility, though it can incidentally be useful in different ways (as we saw in the case of the soccer striker). And once more, to clarify the issue, Aristotle gives us an obscure example regarding measures. A similar example, if I understand the issue correctly, would be that of the beneficial, and agreed to, use of human standards such as that of the metric system. We all agree what a 100 meters are, we sense it is beneficial to agree thus, particularly in Olympic races. However the conventional nature of this standard, the metric one, comes to the fore when compared to other systems like the US system and its use of feet. Unfortunately these examples do not refer to lawful arrangements and in this way would seem to differ somewhat from what Aristotle tells us. But if this example is not the best, Aristotle himself has provided us with one in the whole discussion of Justice, that of the use of money by communities. Even the name itself of money, nomisma reflects its conventionality: “this is why money is so called, because it exists not by nature but by custom, and it is in our power to change its value or render it useless” (1133a29-31).

The fact that Aristotle somehow senses that his own example concerning measures is far removed from political justice, surfaces in the line which continues his argumentation. Relativity and conventionality are present not simply in measurements, but principally in political regimes: “the just things that are not by nature but merely by humans are not the same everywhere, since the regimes are not”. It is precisely here where political justice seems to be destined to a relativity based upon the different views of what conventional right is, or might be. But this is not new to Aristotle. He has pointed to this difficulty from the very start of the Book on Justice, particularly in his consideration of justice in the general sense. There justice as the lawful, which aims at securing happiness for the members of the political community, was partly understood as follows:

“the laws prescribe for all departments of life aiming at the common advantage whether of all the citizens, or of the best of them, or of the ruling class, or on some other basis. So in a sense we call just anything that tends to produce or conserve the happiness (and constituents of happiness) of a political association (1129b16-21)

If law so varies from regime to regime, then it seems that the search for a natural right from which to critically assess the different interpretation of the role of law is ruled out as utopian. This troubling conclusion is in fact made worse because of the fact that within each type of regime there exists fallibility as to the setting down of the laws themselves: “the law commands some kinds of behaviour and forbids others; rightly of the law is rightly enacted, but not so well if it is an improvised measure” (1129b28-29). There would then be different types of happiness, one here, one there; all equally unquestionable. Or so it would seem.

Aristotle knows of this variability of conventional law, but he knows too of the necessity of providing a human standard from which judgment can be passed on diversity. This is why the passage we have been analyzing continues precisely by calling forth such criteria. The complete passage reads: “similarly the just things that are not by nature but merely by humans are not the same everywhere, since the regimes are not, THOUGH there is only one that is everywhere according to nature the best”. We stand perplexed for Aristotle seems to want it both ways. He wants to argue that what is merely by humans is not by nature, and presumably all political justice concerns the human, and, therefore cannot be by nature. And yet there is such a regime, he claims, that is by nature the best of possible regimes; and presumably if this regime has anything to tell us humans, then it is of human form. Perhaps natural here could be understood by looking back at the example of the ambidextrous individual. Just as by nature we are all born either right handed or left handed, so by nature, according to Aristotle, we humans are political animals; we live in political associations where alone the good life can be achieved. However all existing regimes deviate to different extents from the best human level of political fulfillment and health; one must therefore seek to understand the complex circumstances in which such deviations have come about.

But if the development of the ambidextrous person requires a level of personal commitment and dedication that is undertaken by few; this effort presumably would be much more difficult to obtain at the level of the whole political community. A tension arises between those transforming themselves in order to become ambidextrous, and the need to transform the political conditions in which becoming ambidextrous rises as a human possibility. As Aristotle puts it:

“As for the education of the individual, that which makes him simply a good man, we must determine later whether it falls under political science or some other, because probably it is not always the same thing to be a good man and a good citizen” (1130b25-30)

But indeed it would seem too that the healthier the regime’s commitment to political justice, the healthier the individuals partaking of that standard; and vice-versa the healthier the individuals, the healthier the political association itself. (e.g. 1129a16-21). Furthermore. the fact that this standard is not a transcendental object independent of the way we humans live in our always imperfect political communities, is hinted too also in the Ethics. The final lines of the work tell us of an investigatory procedure that must be followed to complete our understanding of the realm of the ethical by way of a study of the political:

“So let us first try to review any valid statements … that have been made by our predecessors; and then to consider, in the light of our collected examples of constitutions what influences are conservative and what are destructive of a state …. and for what reasons states are well governed … for after examining these questions we shall perhaps see more comprehensively what kind of constit ution is the best ….” (1181b13-21).

What is by nature the best is not an immutable given, but the end object of a comparative study of the different existing regimes which remain always wanting due to the very complex circumstances in which they develop. In this sense political justice by nature is transformable though it is not made completely anew each time new information is gathered as regards the different conventional political communities. (*14) Respect for multiplicity does not signify not being able to reach out to certain criteria which the best possible polis ought to follow; an issue taken up at length in the Politics.


Two of the most important interpretations of the passage we have attempted to clarify have been those of Saint Thomas Aquinas and Marsilius of Padua. Their positions are so divergent that for Strauss they can be said to exemplify the opposition between the ‘theological’ and the ‘philosophical’ interpretations of natural right (Strauss, PAW 96-7). Are these two views thus condemned to the very incommensurability which we have argued an account of natural right seeks to counter at the level of the political? Is one more in accordance with the Aristotelian position as articulated in the text itself? Or do both take from Aristotle what fits their personal mold, so that the Aristotelian perspective is, though transformed, not Aristotelian in a strong sense? Can one, as Strauss proposes, seek some middle road between what, perhaps in the final analysis turn out to be not two extremes in a continuum, but rather two altogether different fields of human understanding? Perhaps by looking critically at each of the authors in turn, we might gain some insight, however slight, on these difficult questions.

Aquinas’ outlook of the world and ourselves is that of one of the major strands to be found within the Catholic tradition; the other being that of Saint Augustine. Because of this, Aquinas superimposes a Catholic mold over the pre-Christian Aristotelian interpretation of natural right. And this does not go by unnoticed when one compares it to the original text in Aristotle. One of the places where this recasting of Aristotle’s wording becomes more salient can be seen in what Aquinas takes to be the relationship between the principles concerning speculative matters, and those that serve as guides for human action in the variable realm of practical affairs. In his commentary on the Ethics he tells us that, just as in speculative philosophy:

“likewise in practical matters there are some principles naturally known as it were, indemonstrable principles and truths related to them, as evil must be avoided, no one is to be unjustly injured, theft must not be committed and so on” (1018)

The ethical, according to Aquinas, deals with indemonstrable principles which we humans ought to take as starting points and guidelines by way of which we can determine the just or unjust nature of actions, both at the level of the individual and that of the political community. Just as we cannot prove Euclid’s most fundamental axioms, so in the realm of conduct we cannot demonstrate the validity of those fundamental principles which determine that evil, injustice and theft ought always, without exception, to be avoided. (*15)

Although it is quite true that Aristotle sometimes speaks in an Aquinas-like fashion, particularly in Book 2 of his Ethics, he nonetheless goes out of his way to clarify more fully what is set there as an introductory framework; one to be followed by different qualifications. The passage in question, which concerns the inexistence of a mean in some cases, reads as follows: “but not every action or feeling admits of a mean; because some have names that directly connote depravity, such as malice, shamelessness and envy and among actions, adultery, theft and murder ….. in either case … one is ALWAYS wrong” (1107a9-15). Though superficially on the same track as Aquinas’ argument, nevertheless Aristotle gives us much more, and much less, than Aquinas does. Aristotle never alludes to any indemonstrable truths, and besides, his longer list includes not only actions, but feelings as well. For Aristotle goodness is concerned not only with the way we act on the world and others, but also, and just as importantly, with the way we are open to this world and others with whom we share in it (1109b30).

Besides Aristotle does not leave this statement, which appears early on in the text, unqualified. Instead his different discussions ——on the difficulty of defining the mean when considered in relation to us and the action concerned, on the relationship between voluntary and involuntary action, and on his analysis of the virtues and the tension present in their being taken as ends in themselves or for the sake of something else—— rids the Aristotelian passage of Aquinas’ sense of immutability and indemonstrability. And this is no surprise to us who sense that Aquinas’ “free(dom) from hesitations and ambiguities” (Strauss, CNR) (*16), is somehow linked to the certainty offered by the presence of clear cut, and clearly articulated, divine commandments. Aquinas lacks, at times, the permanent Aristotelian consideration for the fluidity and flexibility characteristic of the practical affairs in which different human beings are involved. For Aristotle:

“questions of conduct and expediency have as little fixity about them as questions about what is healthful; and if this is true of the general rule, it is still more true that its application to particular problems admits of no precision” (1104a3-7) (see also 1094a11 ff).

(Which is of course not to say that Aristotle does not have criteria for the consideration of an action as praiseworthy or blameworthy). A clear example of the tension between both the Catholic and the Greek outlook can be seen by focusing on one of the actions to which both writers allude, namely, that of theft. For Aquinas “those actions belonging to the very nature of justice cannot be changed in anyway, for example, theft must not be commited because an injustice” (1029). Robbing is an activity that we should strive with all our might to avoid for it involves, under all circumstances, committing an unjustice. Stealing is sinful. In contrast, by taking up the Aristotelian multilayered qualifications, one could eventually come to conceive of, or be actually involved in, situations where stealing would not only not be evil, but perhaps the best possible course of action under the constraining circumstances. War sets the conditions for just this kind of exceptional undertakings. (*17)

But this reading is rather unfair to the very sensitivity which is characteristic of Aquinas’ outlook. The Catholic philosopher himself acknowledges some variability. Nevertheless it concerns not the principles (i.e. no variability in terms of natural right), but the specific actions undertaken. His interpretation of the passage on becoming ambidextrous is here, I think, revealing. He tells us: “so also the things that are just be nature, for example, that a deposit ought to be returned must be observed in the majority of cases but is changed in the minority”(1028) (which deals with part of the first definition of justice given by Polemarchus to Socrates in Plato’s Republic 331d (*18)). However, although this example does qualify somewhat what we previously said, still the principle to which this specific example alludes, is definitely not of the stronger type, the kind which merits inclusion under the Decalogue.

But no matter how the matter stands here, that which is most un-Aristotelian in the whole interpretation by Aquinas on natural right, lies in that the standard upon which such right is founded is not of human origin. Aquinas’ yardstick, though it is in fact related to human rationality ——a faculty Aquinas tells us is shared by all humans making them capable of distinguishing what is disgraceful from what is honorable (1019)—— is itself measured by a not so human standard. Reason is completed only with view to faith; natural right is superseded, or finds its fundamental expression in divine law. As Strauss puts it: “the ultimate consequence of the Thomistic point of view is practically inseparable from natural theology … but even from revealed theology” (Strauss, NRH, 164). This theological perspective retakes some of the conceptions presented by Aristotle, but informs them with a mold which at times does not fit as gracefully as one would desire. Natural right looses the ambivalence which enriched the Aristotelian perspective, and which we saw was continually present in the struggles faced in the passage analyzed. All conventional right, all political justice, can therefore be adequately compared to that standard which holds universally and equally for all. And given that its fundamental seal of guarantee lies not in rationality but rather in faith, no matter what one makes of this position, it remains true that Aquinas’ faith in the Catholic God, as contrasted to the divine in Aristotle, stands unchallenged by any appeal to reason. (*19) Precisely because of this, finding some kind of middle road between this interpretation, and Marsilius’, seems an unfortunate project to undertake. One cannot have both of them at the same time, for their standards for measuring are fundamentally of a different qualitative kind. These would stand very much in accordance to Marsilius view. But to see why this is so, one needs to consider the other side of the balance.

What Strauss calls the ‘philosophical’ interpretation of Aristotle, is carried out by Marsilius of Padua, following Averroes. While the Renaissance writer does take up some of the elements analyzed in the discussion of the Aristotelian passage, his primary objective seems to be to set itself as a radically different alternative to Aquinas’ ‘theological’ view. In that Marsilius seems —–I say ‘seems’ for, as we shall see, this is not completely so—— to set himself against a religious tradition, one finds a first parallel between him and Aristotle. The latter too sets his conception of philosophy against a traditional perspective of the divine which finds its clearest expression in the Delphic inscription found both ethics (EN 1099a26-7). However, the religious traditions which they both question, are of a very different nature.

In his attack on the view of natural right which links it to divine law, Marsilius puts forward two arguments concerning the relationship between it, and its counterpart, conventional right. In order to go through each I will designate the first the ‘as-if’ argument, and the second, the ‘plural rationalities’ argument. According to the first, natural right concerns “that which almost everyone agrees is respectable”. A statement with which neither Aquinas nor Aristotle would agree. On the one hand, for Aquinas it is precisely its immutability that which gives natural right its divine force. On the other, for Aristotle, it is precisely its being independent of opinion that which makes natural right that which it is; general agreement belongs only to the realm of conventional right. Moreover, to differentiate himself much more profoundly from the Catholic alternative, Marsilius includes under this conception the immutable laws which conform the Decalogue; obligations which are, according to Aquinas, exception-free, such as worshiping God and honouring one’s parents. What I have called the ‘as-if’ argument really gets its name it what follows position based on consent. Marsilius understands natural as being conceivable solely in a “metaphorical” sense. If one is clear about natural right, then one does not delude oneself into really believing it can be taken in the literal sense. Natural right is not univocal but equivocal; it is simply a very good intentioned belief we humans hold on to. It is neither an indemonstrable truth as for Aquinas, nor a real standard as for Aristotle.

It is particularly illuminating in understanding the difference between Marsilius and Aristotle, to look at the example concerning the fact that fire burns equally everywhere. In Marsilius its articulation is completely transformed. And this change points us back to one of the prefatory remarks I made in the introduction, namely, that the non-teleological view of the universe is the view of nature open to us moderns. As Marsilius puts it: “like the acts of natural things NOT having purpose are everywhere the same, such as fire which burns here just as it does in Persia”. Nothing would seem more foreign to the Aristotelian conception of teleological nature. For Marsilius, in a universe devoid of purposefulness, the notion of natural right cannot stem from a consideration of an external order which we seek to understand, and in so doing reach our highest potentialities. (However, it seems clear that Aristotle in his own argumentation did not lay claim to such teleology as grounding his own perspective on natural right).

The second argument, what I have called the ‘plural rationalities argument’, seems once again set primarily against Aquinas’ view of natural right; though it is likewise not wholly in accordance with what Aristotle has told us. As we saw, for Aquinas the force of natural right stemmed from the rational capacity we humans have to be able to recognize and live by the principles revealed to us by God. In stark contrast, Marsilius tells us, quite sure of himself —— he uses the words ‘of course’—- that these rational principles (not to say anything of the divine principles underpinning them), are not at all known to all humans. An affirmation which, for instance would still seem not to preclude the search for evangelization. This is so because with an effort on the part of different missionaries, all of us could be brought to finally see and abide by these standards. However, the ignorance of the ‘correct’ principles, for Marsilius, leads consequently to the much more problematic fact that they are “not admitted by all, and all nations do not concede (them) to be respectable”. Presumably those who do not admit them, as opposed to those who are merely ignorant of them, could also be brought to finally admitting them. But the history which lies behind this procedure, particularly in the case of the Catholic Church, would make us now hesitate over considering such “forceful” transformation. Natural right, and it is noteworthy that nowhere does Marsilius mention the example of the ambidextrous human, would then seem to be inexistent. Consequently, any attempt to judge these different nations would be, if not an unrealistic affair, at least a much more arduous one than either Aquina or Aristotle would allow. For Marsilius what each nation finds respectable, is precisely what each holds to be their view of conventional right. Natural right ceases to exist because as Strauss puts it:

“The effectiveness of general rules depends on their being taught without ifs or buts. But the omission of the qualification which makes the rule —— makes them at the same time untrue. The unqualified rules are not natural right but conventional right” (Strauss, NRH, 158).

Or so it would seem. What Strauss does not mention, though it is striking and reminds us of Aristotle’s ambivalence, is that Marsilius, in the end, pauses to tell us that, for the most part, we can still go on with divine law: “There are also precepts, prohibitions, or permissions in accordance with divine law which agree in this respect with human law, which since they are known in many instances, I have not given examples of for the sake of abbreviating this sermon”. But even at this level one would, following Marsilius own propositions, be led to ask; which set of divine laws are you speaking of?

As has been seen, both Aquinas’ and Marsilius’ interpretations not only stand in conflict with each other, but likewise read into, and suspiciously pass over, central elements of the Aristotelian passage analyzed. Furthermore, as we pointed out, seeking to find a middle road between these alternatives is an entreprise which seems to be blind to the fact that both stand in rather different spaces of inquiry. However Strauss has attempted to move in that direction seeking to avoid the extreme immutability of Aquinas’ position, and the extreme variability of Marsilius’. Briefly put, for Strauss natural right consists in highly particular decisions, taken in concrete circumstances. However this variability of the natural is, as in Aristotle, at the same time accompanied by an underpinning sense of what are the ethical principles: “(for) one can hardly deny that in all concrete decisions general principles are implied and presupposed” (159). An instance in which such concrete and variable decision making becomes evident, lies in those extreme circumstances in which the survival of the political community, the existence of the common good itself, is what is at stake. In such circumstances normality is shaken to the point that what becomes primary, and urgently so, is the very survival of the community itself: “in extreme situations the normally valid rules of natural right are justly changed, or changed in accordance with natural right, the exceptions are as just as the rules” (160) (*20). One could ask, however, are extreme situations the only ones in which natural right, in all its variability, appears? Is its scope then so limited as to become rather secondary? Moreover, in a given community one need ask, who is it precisely that decides what constitutes an extreme situation in which normalcy can be temporarily waived? (*21) What if the regime in question precisely seeks such appeals to set itself as unquestionable?

Strauss acknowledges these difficulties in his distancing himself from the Machiavellian conception of natural right, founded on the extreme situations themselves rather than on the normality which Aristotle takes as starting point. Moreover, Strauss points out to a critical standard which, he holds, holds universally for all conventional right:

“there is a universally valid hierarchy of ends, but there are no universally valid rules of action” (162) ….or elsewhere “the only universally valid standard is the hierarchy of ends. This standard is sufficient for passing judgment of the nobility of individuals and of actions and institutions. But it is insufficient for guiding our actions” (163).

Unlike Aquinas’ position, Strauss’ has the virtue of regaining the fluidity and transformability of natural right which characterized the Aristotelian understanding. Likewise, unlike Marsilius’ alternative it does present us, like Aristotle, with some natural standard which would allow political justice to surge above the ephimerality of conventional right. Moreover, he points to the fact that Aristotle’s hesitations stem from the multiplicity of circumstances in which human beings find themselves throughout their lives. As we saw: “questions of conduct and expedience have as little fixity about them as questions about what is healthful; and if this is true of the general urle, it is still more true that its application to particular problems admits of no precision” (1104a4-9). Furthermore, as in Aristotle the focus too is not primarily on knowing what goodness is, but on learning how to become good human beings (1103b28-9) (a statement qualified for young people in 1095a5 who fail to learn anything from lectures on ethics for they are lead away by their passionate natures into different types of actions).

But, precisely how this hierarchy of ends is to be understood is quite a different problem altogether. As we saw not even Aquinas and Marsilius seemed to be in agreement as to an extremely short passage within Aristotle’s text. Presumably then one cannot claim to have the unique interpretation which will, finally, clarify what counts as constitutive of this hierarchy. How to understand is a contested matter presumably to be cleared by reading and re-reading the text itself. However, let us conclude by saying that an elucidation of this hierarchy must consider different passages in which such a hierarchical structuring takes place. Briefly, some of these are: i) the existence of a hierarchy in the arts which culminates in the architectonic arts, ii) the formulation of happiness as the highest possible end for us humans, end under which all other goods are subordinated, iii) the hierarchical division of the soul into the vegetative, the appetitive and the rational (logos); linked to the corresponding proper function of humans according to rational principle, iv) the hierarchy of goods as found in the tripartite division, goods of the body, external goods, and goods of the soul, v) the hierarchy of different types of lives; the life of business, of enjoyment, of politics and of philosophical contemplation, vi) the hierarchy of the moral virtues, hierarchy in which greatness of soul stands as one of the peaks and finally, vii) the peak which justice represents, one revealing a reconsideration of the moral virtues under the perspective of the good, fundamentally, for the other.



1. This important question is posed by Strauss in his Persecution and the Art of Writing pg 95.

2. Strauss goes on to compare modern relativity to nihilism; though he does not mention that nihilism can be of two very different variants, the active and the passive. Nietzsche, Will to Power #22.

3. Strauss agrees with Taylor here, pg. 164

4. Taylor agrees with Strauss here. Section 3.1


5. Arendt deals with this extremely important difference, between the private and the public, in her The Human Condition.

6. A case in point is that of Charly Garcia, a famous Argentinian rock star, and his reinterpretation of the Argentinian National Anthem in heavy metal form. It shocked many Argentinians.

7. Presumably the important issue of equity, as dealing with the faulty generality of law, would somehow be linked to these particular transformations of the law.

8. Parekh gives examples such as this: “In R v Bibi (1980) the Court of Appeal reduced the imprisonment of a Muslim widow, found guilty of importing cannabis, from three years to 6 months on the ground, that, among other things, she was totally dependent on her brother-in-law and was socialized by her religion into subservience to the male members of her household” (200) Other very interesting and complex examples are given in the readings by Carens (see bibliography).

9. The qualification ‘in relation to us’ has taken place not only concerning ethical inquiry in general (1095b11 ff), but also concerning the mean (1106a30 ff)

10. It is interesting to note that under Catholicism the left hand has had a rather unfortunate history. This is more salient in the Spanish words siniestra, the left, and diestra, the right. Siniestra has altogether negative connotations just as sinister does in English.

11. Aquinas gives an example of humans having by nature two feet; this of course is not the Aristotelian example precisely because it does not deal with the transformability of the natural.

12. The connection here between this example and the always elusive issue of health as regards justice (see chapter 1) I believe is there, though I do not quite know how to articulate it fully at the moment.

13. That these matters make a difference can be seen, for instance, if one asks somebody used to one of the given measurements to imagine the other. If somebody asked me, for instance, the altitude of Santafé de Bogotá in feet, I would be at a loss as to what to answer. Though I know, and was brought up to memorize as a child, the corresponding measure in meters.

14. This looking at actual real cases is what lies behind Carens’ appeal to differentiating between policy making and philosophical comprehension, or between idealistic and realistic approaches to politics. He asks one to, rather than staying at one of the extremes. move towards a form of reflexive equilibrium. On a different note, the passage which ends the chapter to be analyzed was left on the side primarily because of the difficulty in viewing how to link it to the whole discussion. Is there such a connection?


15. Of course in modern geometry Euclid’s axioms are only a set of the possible starting points. Conventionality has reached even such indemonstrable truths for us moderns.

16. Kantian ethics is too permeated by this rigidity, primarily as regards its distinction between the moral and the non-moral spheres. There is a sharp line differentiating both.

17. Strauss gives the example of espionage. pg 160

18. Socrates “tricks” Thrasymachus into assuming a natural standard which he himself did not hold by way of his definition of justice with reference to the strongest.

19. The question as to whether one can return to the Greeks, having had 2000 years of Catholic tradition, is a difficult one. One can see he ambivalence in poems such as Rimbaud’s nostalgic Soleil et Chair.

20. The extreme situation for the individual is presented by Aristotle in 1100b31 ff.

21. In Colombia, where I was born, there is such a law which is called “Ley de Conmocion Interior”. It can be set in place when the public order is imperiled; as it has happened many times happens under the Colombian reality, one of a weak form of democracy (some would argue an oligarchy). But it is limited to a 3 month period of application; presumably so that the exception does not become the satte of normalcy. But also so that the government does not use it to further its own objectives. Under this law for instance military officials require no warrants in the persecution of criminals. However the governement has used it, I believe, as a weapon to fight matters which go beyond the defense of the public realm; or at least as a substitute for other measures which would go to the heart of the violence and poverty which permeates everyday reality.


A) Primary Sources

Aristotle, Ethica Nicomachea, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1rst 1894, 20th 1988, Edited by I. Bywater.

Aristotle, The Ethics of Aristotle, Penguin Books, London, 1rst- 1953, 1988. Translated by J.A.K. Thomson.

B) Secondary Sources

Carens, Joseph, “Complex Justice, Cultural Difference and Political Community”

——– “Realistic and Idealistic Approaches to the Ethics of Migration”

——– “Democracy and Respect for Difference”

Course Handouts:

——Aquinas, Commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics, 1018-1032

——Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. 5, chap 7 9113418-35a15)

——Marsilius of Padua, Defender of Peace, Discourse 2, Chap 12, sec 7-9

Parekh, Bikhu, “British Citizenship and Cultural Difference”, in Geoff Andrews (de.) Citizenship, Lawrence and Wishart, London, pp.  183-204.

Strauss, Leo, Natural Right and History, University of Chicago Press, “Introduction“ and “Classical Natural Right”, pp.  156-164.

——- Persecution and the Art of Writing, pp.  95-98

Taylor, Charles, Sources of the Self, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1990.

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