Features Week of January 6 2019
8 minutes

Classical political philosophy does not ground natural right in a (scientific) cosmic teleology.

Ellmers and Wise have the impression that students of Leo Strauss have abjured their “responsibility” to be, not only political, but also “metaphysical philosophers.” They seem to be unaware that Strauss’s students have recently been doing work in natural or theoretical philosophy. Apart from my book, The Socratic Turn, there is David Bolotin’s An Approach to Aristotle’s Physics, his commentary on De Anima, and, above all, Christopher Bruell’s Aristotle as Teacher.

That said, Ellmers and Wise have this impression and admittedly, insofar as the books I mention have only recently been published, their impression is not entirely wrong. They believe that “modern-day heirs of Plato and Aristotle should be ashamed of themselves for opting out of,” instead of throwing themselves into, the purely theoretical conversations that only modern natural scientists seem to be seriously engaged in today.

Ellmers and Wise’s concerns, however, are not so much theoretical as practical. As their talk of responsibility and shame plainly suggests, they are particularly concerned with morality, with the status of morality in our scientific age and therefore with the education of the youth, whose corruption—at the hands of “postmodernism,” “Marxists on campus,” and “ideologies of oppression and intersectionality”—they fear. Liberalism’s restoration ultimately depends, in their view, on the restoration of the “proper understanding of the physical and biological sciences.” Ellmers and Wise have some sense that there is a high moral and political price to be paid for modern natural science’s success in persuading so many of us that ours is “a purposeless world.” To be sure, their many complaints about the scientific and political challenges of the day—the politicization of climate-change research, for example, and the reproduction crisis in social psychology—have nothing to do with this grave problem.

Nevertheless, although Ellmers and Wise are too impressed by timely irrelevancies to give any account of the connection between a nonteleological world and the status of morality, their sense that there is a real problem here—even if it is only a sense—is on the mark. But the problem is not that “nature provides no information that can serve to advise politics;” the problem is much more serious, much more troubling than that. (Consider, for example, Natural Right and History 109, 275-6, City and Man 16, Socrates and Aristophanes 316n.20) Ellmers and Wise’s proposed solution is accordingly no better than their account of the problem itself. In short, partly because they have no account of the problem of science and morality, much less of Strauss’s account of the problem, they misunderstand Strauss’s response to it. Their own response, which is diametrically opposed to Strauss’s, is a direct result of this misunderstanding.

According to Strauss, “natural right in its classic form is connected with a teleological view of the universe” (Natural Right and History 7). But Ellmers and Wise go far beyond this. “For Plato and Aristotle,” they say, Strauss emphasized that “the ground of justice could be found in the order and ends of the whole universe,” in a “cosmic teleology.” But where does Strauss say this? So far as I am aware, he never said anything of the sort. Frequently, though, Strauss did say just the reverse. Here are some examples: “Socrates was so far from being committed to a specific cosmology that his knowledge was knowledge of ignorance. Socrates, then, viewed man in the light of the mysterious character of the whole” (What Is Political Philosophy? 38-9); “One is therefore tempted to wonder whether the Xenophontic Socrates was not, like the Platonic Socrates, dissatisfied with the simple teleology—anthropocentric or not—which at first glance seems to supply the most rational solution to all difficulties” (Xenophon’s Socratic Discourse 149); “Plato does not…oppose to materialist-mechanistic physics a spiritualist-teleological physics” (The Political Philosophy of Hobbes 143). As for Aristotle, Strauss said that “the Aristotelian distinction between the theoretical and the practical sciences implies that human action has principles of its own which are known independently of theoretical science (physics and metaphysics) and therefore that the practical sciences do not depend on the theoretical sciences or are not derivative from them” (Liberalism Ancient and Modern 205, City and Man 25-6).

Not only do Ellmers and Wise wrongly suppose that classical political philosophy was committed to a cosmic teleology, but they would have us ground “natural right” also—or instead—in evolutionary biology. They lament the fact that so few students of Strauss have gone looking for natural right in human biology. But surely this follows from the fact that to look for it there is to pull the rug out from under classical political philosophy, which starts from ordinary opinions, not about human nature, but about the noble, the just, or the good. (The passage of Natural Right and History to which Larry Arnhart refers in his reply to Ellmers and Wise [94-5] has to do with the pre-Socratics and the sophists; unfortunately, the passage means the exact opposite of what he seems to think it means.) As Strauss put it, when speaking of the starting-point of classical political philosophy, “the definite character of the virtues and, in particular, of justice cannot be deduced from human nature” (Natural Right and History 145-6, cf. 248). This does not mean that support for natural right cannot or need not be found in human nature; it can and must be. But Strauss, in his circuitous treatment of what Socrates said in Plato’s Phaedo about his turn to speeches, left no doubt that this approach—starting from the facts about human beings and not from the opinions about their ends or purposes (126-45)—is only “seemingly” a more direct approach to being (126; contrast 145-6 and following).

Ellmers and Wise, who sympathize with lukewarm students, “bored” by the careful study of old books, will perhaps say that I have gotten “lost in minutiae.” But I have only drawn attention to the fact that classical political philosophy, for Strauss, did not look for the ground of natural right in a (scientific) cosmic teleology, on the one hand, or even to begin with in human nature, on the other, in order to draw attention to the related fact that Ellmers and Wise, not unexpectedly, look for the ground of natural right in both. But Socrates would ask, I think, whether they believe that grounding justice “in the order and ends of the whole universe” is the same thing as looking “for natural right in human biology; in the nature of the zoon politikon, rather than in the stars,” even though the end of the universe cannot possibly be the same thing as the end of the nature of man? If so—and they surely do not believe that the time has come to abandon what they wrongly supposed classical political philosophy to be, an undertaking based on a cosmic teleology, and try something new—then do they themselves know what they’re after?

What, in other words, is teleology? The nature of man is prior to man’s end. But does the nature of man itself arise for the sake of an end? If so, the end for the sake of which the nature of man arises is prior to the nature of man, hence, prior to man’s end. As for that end, the end of the universe in giving rise to the natures to which it gives rise, what is it? Questions along these lines eventually brought the young Socrates to the realization that the correct view according to philosophy is also, as Maimonides put it, the view according to faith (The Guide of the Perplexed III.13). Socrates accordingly laid or cleared the ground for a new approach to the study of nature—one which, as Strauss put it, “makes possible,” for the first time, the study of morality (Natural Right and History 123). That said, because they do not ask the elementary questions which the young Socrates asked, Ellmers and Wise can only gesture in the general direction of what they’re after. In the same way as irrelevant complaints about the day’s scientific and political challenges replace an account of the problem of science and morality, sentimental descriptions of order in the natural world replace an account of their proposed solution. The cosmos, however, can be orderly—the beings of our experience can be distinct and irreducible to other, more fundamental beings; men can generate men, cats cats, and so on—without “being,” as Ellmers and Wise finally say explicitly in their reply to Arnhart, “moral.”

In short, Ellmers and Wise are quite right to direct attention to one of the gravest—and, for this reason, least acknowledged—problems of our time. Without natural philosophy, rational moral and political discussion is indeed impossible. But nobody knew this better than the ancients. Political philosophy was founded by Socrates, on the ground laid or cleared by him when he, in his youth, thought long and hard about materialism, on the one hand, and teleology, on the other. Only when explanations of the beings of our experience in terms of their material and efficient causes proved to his mind to be derivative from common sense, self-contradictory, and hopelessly incomplete (to give some indication of what he took away from his thinking about materialism, for example), did Socrates feel entitled or compelled to give common sense, along with human, purposive behavior, its due. And so, in conclusion, there is no more pressing task for those who are deeply affected by the practical concerns of which Ellmers and Wise surely know something—to say nothing of those whose concerns are more theoretical, too—than to get lost in the minutiae of the old books in which the record of the thoughts in question can still be found. For until such time as we make Socrates’s thoughts about nature our own (as Strauss himself did, even if he chose not to spell them out fully in writing), we today have no right to believe that “the world that concerns us,” “the life-world,” is also “the true world.” And we will be bound to waver accordingly, not only about the status of the world in which we live, but also about the status—the very existence—of morality.

is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Michigan State University, where he studies and teaches the history of political philosophy. His first book, "The Socratic Turn: Knowledge of Good and Evil in an Age of Science" (2016), won the Delba Winthrop Award for Excellence in Political Science.

Origin of this feature


Strauss, Science, & the Crisis of Liberalism

Responses to Glenn Ellmers and J. Eric Wise's argument for an invigorated political philosophy that addresses the looming problems of modern science.