July 29, 2003    PhilosophyPolitics

Leo Strauss and His Natural Right

In the past several months, suddenly the name Leo Strauss has been all over the media. Before that, I had never heard of him. The media depicts a rather sinister picture of him being almost like the leader of a cult whose objective is clandestine domination of the world. I too was fascinated by his notion of esoteric and exoteric texts that I read in the media; the former being a type of text designed specifically to speak to other elites of the society, while the latter being a type of text that says one thing when it really means to say wholly another. I had a healthy dose of skepticism about what the media was saying as well. I needed to find out for myself what Leo Strauss was about. The following is what I learned from his most famous and controversial book, “Natural Right And History.”

Let me say up front that the media’s depiction of his philosophy is distorted and dramatized. Leo Strauss was a political philosopher (1899-1973) who believed in the existence of “natural right.” Unfortunately what he meant by it is quite different from what one might imagine at first. It does not recommend a government to rule its people like a religious leader would, using scripture that defines right and wrong. His philosophy came as a countermovement to what he believed to be excessive relativism. He felt that relativism is now enforced to such a degree that it has become a form of absolutism. In other words, today, everything is absolutely relative. He argued that this extreme liberalism was incapable of fighting forces that were clearly evil, such as Nazism.

In the book, the notion of natural right is contrasted with “positive right,” the latter being a theoretical, scientific, or logical form of right and wrong. His concern was not with something being absolutely right or wrong, but with something being naturally right. He asserted that something being naturally right could not be theoretically proven. That is, reason alone cannot be the guiding force in politics.

He saw a politician being similar in vein to a physician. The latter possesses skills and wisdom that are accumulated through experience as well as through talent. Just as we do not let anyone play the role of a doctor, he believed that the superiority of politicians in governing a nation should be respected.

Part of what makes his philosophy controversial is that he did not see democracy as being good in and of itself. According to his philosophy, virtually any form of government can be good as long as the wisdom takes precedence over consent, the reverse being egalitarianism for its own sake. He felt that extreme relativism was prioritizing agreement over wisdom.

He saw danger in positive right, or right deduced by theories because logic is not mutable while the “inventiveness of wickedness” is. Natural right therefore must be mutable, which is diametrically opposed to the superficial understanding of his philosophy. He did not claim to know or dictate what is absolutely right or wrong. Quite the opposite: In his view, what is naturally right must change over time.

The reason why the conservatives embraced his philosophy is partly due to his view on religions. He believed that religion is necessary for the masses. This religion could be anything that gives a purpose to one’s life. His view of the world and life was teleological. He believed that we are here for a reason. While he himself might not have embraced this view, he saw that what made a society virtuous was this teleological view of the universe. Without it, society would lead to nihilism and become self-destructive. He said, “The more we cultivate reason, the more we cultivate nihilism: the less are we able to be loyal members of society.”

The part of his philosophy that the media is blowing out of proportion is the idea of “Straussian text.” It is depicted as a strategy to manipulate and mislead the masses for the benefit of the elite few. It is quite obvious where this misinterpretation is coming from. Both Bush and Blair are being called “Neo-con” and are being accused of misleading the public. This notion of “Straussian text” is nothing new. The true meaning of it is so mundane that the label sounds more complex and sophisticated than it actually is.

Straussian text is nothing more than diplomacy. It is a form of “caution” employed by politicians as well as philosophers. In fact, we all use it in our ordinary lives. For instance, suppose at your job there was a girl who smelled so badly that she was making other people feel ill. As the head of the department, you consult the human resource department and learn that she has a type of illness that produces a bad odor. Knowing her trouble, you wouldn’t want to offend her. So, you devise a plan to move her to an enclosed office explaining that it would be advantageous for her to be in this room which has a piece of equipment she uses often for her job. In order to prevent someone from revealing the true reason, you also do not disclose it to other employees. You officially send a memo to everyone explaining that she is moving into a new office because of the equipment. This memo would be a Straussian text.

Prejudice, ignorance, pride, and emotional sensitivity are facts of life. The truth is not always the optimal solution to achieve an ideal end. Straussian text is nothing more than a form of diplomacy. Ironically the widespread misunderstanding of Strauss’ philosophy serves as a good example of why Straussian text is necessary. If you state it like it is, you will be misunderstood, so why not state it in such a way that it would be interpreted the right way, even if it literally says something else. In the example above, the goal is to make a pleasant environment for all the office workers. You can achieve the same goal by being truthful or by using a Straussian text, but the former would humiliate the woman and the latter would not.

However, Straussian text is not, in my opinion, always wiser. Oftentimes, being truthful is better in the long run, as witnessed by the current state of the war in Iraq. Both Bush and Blair used Straussian text to lead their nations into war. They made wrong assumptions and now they are having trouble explaining the contradictions.

There are certain types of truth that people are better off not knowing. In one of my papers, I have called this “ethical ignorance.” Rather than criticizing the elites for revealing the undesired truth, I have always criticized the masses for not being able to accept it. Hence, from my perspective, Straussian text deals with the same issue that ethical ignorance does except in a different way.

The controversial book, “The Bell Curve,” is a good example that illustrates how ethical ignorance manifests in our society. The book reveals that blacks on average have lower IQs than whites. Many people were outraged by this claim. Whether this is objectively true or not, the reaction to this research is disproportionately greater than if someone were to publish a study proving blacks are physically stronger than Asians. If the latter were to be easily accepted but not the former, then both claims combined would make black as a race superior to Asians, which is no less outrageous than the claim “the Bell Curve” makes.

Strauss took the position that this is unavoidable; the masses cannot handle the truth. I disagree. I believe telling the truth is always better in the long run, and we can always improve the way we do so. The fundamental difference between Strauss’ philosophy and mine seems to be that he did not see our inherent schizophrenia. When he spoke of the masses, individuals, or wise statesmen, he saw each having a cohesive unity. He only saw political struggles playing out between them, not within each. Politics is within you, between your ego and self.

As I quoted earlier, he said, “The more we cultivate reason, the more we cultivate nihilism: the less are we able to be loyal members of society.” This is only true if we identified ourselves with our egos. Just as chess has no meaning of its own, reason by itself cannot create meaning. But the fault does not lie with reason. Ego being our own construction, it is ultimately only a social tool. If we could see it for what it is, nihilism does not result from reason. It is our identification with our egos that cultivate nihilism, not our ability to reason, nor reason itself.

The more you identify with your own ego, the more alienated you become. The more alienated you become, the more you need something outside yourself to be the drive. The fact that you are out of touch with your true self, your inner drive, creates the need to be driven by outside forces such as religion or society. The combination of alienation and the rejection of external drive is what leads one to nihilism.

Those who are alienated from their inner drives become concerned with external drives. This is what Strauss’ philosophy aims to accomplish. He wants to encourage governments to create environments conducive to supplying external drives, but this is dangerous. The more you are encouraged to be driven by external forces, the more you alienate yourself. The solution here is neither reason nor teleology; it is to know your internal drive.

In history, we have become less and less religious. Today we observe that less religious nations are more prosperous. As we can see in Iraq, religious extremism creates conflicts and hinders progress. To be a productive member of a society, a teleological view of life is not necessary. The problem has more to do with alienation than with God.

Our true selves which include our bodies are far wiser than we give credit. Strauss wrote, “In one way or another everyone distinguishes between the body and the soul; and everyone can be forced to admit that he cannot, without contradicting himself, deny that the soul stands higher than the body.” What he means by “the body” is an object that belongs to the ego. This statement clearly shows his identification with his ego, but our bodies are far wiser than our egos are. What our bodies do every day is nothing short of a miracle that we cannot fully explain. Our bodies know not only how to convert matters into energy, but also how to fix themselves if injured or damaged. The fact that we don’t include this wisdom to be part of ourselves underscores our identification with the egos. We don’t feel we are entitled to take credit for it. But our bodies are an inextricable part of who we are. Only the aspects we control are accepted as part of ourselves. This is a manifestation of our alienation.

Politics is a system of compromise. There is no need for us to know what is naturally or positively right or wrong. I agree that “natural right” exists, but I disagree that we need to do something about it. Just as our bodies naturally lead towards being healthy, as long as our egos do not interfere with it, humanity naturally makes progress towards what is right for itself. If we believed that humanity naturally heads in the wrong direction, we might as well end it all, but if history is of any indication, this hasn’t been necessary. Despite our countless mistakes in the past, overall we flourished as a specie. The human race was not saved from self-destruction by a select group of political elites. We prosper today because we are naturally equipped with knowing how to be right. This does not mean that we don’t make mistakes. But if the odds of making mistakes were higher, we would have been extinct by now. Evidently, there is a natural skew towards the odds of success.

I also agree that excessive relativism is dangerous, but I disagree that we need to go the opposite way. To be healthy, you do not need to become preoccupied with health. If you can listen to your body carefully, it knows what it needs to stay healthy. It is the interference of your ego that makes you feel hungry when you are actually not. Trust your nature and let it do its own job.

We, as in our true selves, know what is best for us, just as our bodies know how to get well. There is no need to direct ourselves consciously towards “right” because we head naturally towards it. Any attempt to interfere with the design of “natural right” would only cause it to deviate. I’d say we don’t even need to talk about it.

Addendum (8/6/03):

To avoid any misunderstanding, let me further explain what I mean by “ego” and “true self.”

There are many ways we can build a theoretical model to interpret who we are, but one that I find most useful is the trinary model of intelligence, emotion, and body. In this essay, I argued with the binary model because it was the model Strauss used. Each of the three components has its own wisdom, and Strauss did recognize some of them indirectly when he spoke of theories alone not being able to counter the changes in time. I am respectful of this idea. In the West, there is a general tendency to rule by scientific and positivistic theories, not just in politics but in most other fields. In other words, there is a tendency to value intelligence over the wisdom of the other two.

We are all schizophrenic to a degree and, when we speak of ourselves, what the “I” refers to constantly shifts. Most of the time, it refers to our egos, and occasionally it refers to our true selves. The ego is an artificial construct and a product of our intelligence. I believe that we were endowed with egos in order to be social creatures. The ego, therefore, is an inherently alienating entity. It is part of who we are, but the more we identify ourselves with it, the more alienated we become. It is not possible to get rid of our egos, nor do we want to. The ego is a grammatical entity that helps us communicate with others; it is necessary for us to be effective social creatures. The issue is not whether you have an ego or not, but whether you identify with it. (Jennifer Lopez might identify herself with her butt, but most of us do not even pay attention to ours. Likewise, you have an ego, but you don’t need to identify with it.)

We are a combination of the three components and this understanding cannot be intellectual. Strauss himself argues that the ultimate whole being is impossible to understand because everything exists as a part of something, which is the basis of my argument that “natural right” cannot be discussed or argued. Whether it exists or not is not something we can comprehend.

I agree that those who see relativism as the absolute truth are contradicting themselves. My argument isn’t that everything is relative nor everything is absolute; I propose that we shouldn’t even talk about it.

I value democracy because it allows intelligence, emotion, and body to counter-balance one another. Just as each of us can achieve peace within ourselves by paying attention to all three aspects, a society can also achieve the same by letting the three aspects of the human race balance each other out.

If you don’t identify yourself with any of the three components, there is no ruler. Within some of us, it is the intelligence that rules the other two. Some are ruled by their emotions, while others by their bodies. What I suggest politically is the same as what I suggest for individuals; there is no need for a ruler. We just need an environment where three forces of human nature can balance each other out. Whether that leads to being naturally right or wrong, is not something for us to decide or control.

Even though it appears that humanity has a skew toward being “right” (in terms of history and survival as a race), it may very well be that we tend toward “wrong.” When I observe my own body, it is almost unquestionable that it naturally leads to being right. Extending that to the entire humanity; I can’t see why it wouldn’t tend towards being right either. But even if it doesn’t, there is no point in fighting nature. If we tend towards wrong by nature, then that is the design of our nature; what would be the point of fighting it? If we fight it, it certainly would not be called “natural right.”