Natural Right and History

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University of Chicago Press, 1953 - Philosophy - 326 pages
2 Reviews
In this classic work, Leo Strauss examines the problem of natural right and argues that there is a firm foundation in reality for the distinction between right and wrong in ethics and politics. On the centenary of Strauss's birth, and the fiftieth anniversary of the Walgreen Lectures which spawned the work, Natural Right and History remains as controversial and essential as ever.

"Strauss . . . makes a significant contribution towards an understanding of the intellectual crisis in which we find ourselves . . . [and] brings to his task an admirable scholarship and a brilliant, incisive mind."—John H. Hallowell, American Political Science Review

Leo Strauss (1899-1973) was the Robert Maynard Hutchins Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Political Science at the University of Chicago.

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The other reviewer has contradictions of his own to deal with, which appear in the first sentence. How does the mere citation of "so many recondite sources" contribute to making a book "incomprehensible"? To the contrary, this is one of the most readable books on such a difficult subject. Strauss lays it out in plain language, and for those who are serious, he provides copious citations in footnotes, about one per paragraph. And the references are all to the work of the author he is discussing, or else Plato, Aristotle, et al., which are only recondite to a generation that has forgotten how to read anything other than text messages and email. If you want incomprehensible, try Richard Tuck, _Natural Right Theories_! Quentin Skinner is not much better than Tuck. Clearly, the reviewer has a religious axe to grind. Perhaps he should have paid closer attention to the passages in the beginning about the essential difference between religion and philosophy, upon which difference Strauss does take a clear position (especially in _Writing and Persecution_, but here as well, see o. 81ff). In any event, Strauss makes repeated reference throughout the book to "the second table of the Decalogue." For the reviewer for whom references to the Bible are "recondite", this is the second five of the ten commandments, i.e., the ones dealing with social relations, rather than manner of worship, which Strauss appreciatively cites as exemplary of natural law. As for the conflict between religion and philosophy, this comes out more clearly in the part of the chapter on Locke, which comes later on, where he ties Locke up in his own straps, characterizing him as speaking as he does mainly due to religious persecution. The quotation cited is paraphrase from the chapter on Hobbes, notorious as an atheist because he was the first to throw down Aristotlean teleology in political science. 

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While Natural Right and History is a basic work in American political philosophy, Strauss draws upon so many recondite sources, both directly and indirectly, that it is essentially incomprehensible. One should first study Persecution and the Art of Writing before attempting to draw any conclusions about what Strauss means. For example:
"Since the fundamental and absolute moral fact is a right and not a duty, the function as well as the limits of civil society must be defined in terms of man's natural right and not in terms of his natural duty." p 181
Is Strauss saying that the Ten Commandments are thus subservient to man's right of self-preservation? Commandments are duties. Does not the Talmud suspend duties to preserve life? Is not a killing permitted when it is self-defense. May one disbelief in G-d's Oneness? May one lie abut one's beliefs? If the Ten Commandments are not the basis of society, what good are they?
Does Strauss agree with or disagree with his statement on p 181?
Nothing Strauss writes may be taken at face value as he expects his reader to catch Strauss' own internal contradictions as well as the unmentioned references to Plato, Al-farabi, Maimonides, and others.
In brief, Natural Right and History is a work of genius with no answers -- only endless questions.



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About the author (1953)

Elizabeth A. Kaye specializes in communications as part of her coaching and consulting practice. She has edited Requirements for Certification since the 2000-01 edition.