John H. Hallowell (review date June 1954)
SOURCE: Hallowell, John H. Review of Natural Right and History, by Leo Strauss. American Political Science Review 48, no. 2 (June 1954): 538-41.
[In the following review, Hallowell explores Strauss's conception of natural right and its place in ethics and politics.]
Is there any foundation in reality for the distinction between right and wrong in ethics and politics? Professor Strauss believes that there is and in presenting his case [in Natural Right and History] makes a significant contribution towards an understanding of the intellectual crisis in which we find ourselves. Based upon a series of lectures which Professor Strauss delivered at the University of Chicago in 1949 under the auspices of the Charles R. Walgreen Foundation, this book presents a formidable challenge to a positivistically oriented social science.
Modern social science not only admits its inability to help us in discriminating between legitimate and illegitimate, just and unjust objectives but denies that any rational method exists by which such judgments can objectively be made. As a consequence, Professor Strauss points out, “we can be or become wise in all matters of secondary importance, but we have to be resigned to utter ignorance in the most important respect: we cannot have any knowledge regarding the ultimate principles of our choices, i.e. regarding their soundness or unsoundness; our ultimate principles have no other support than our arbitrary and blind preferences. We are then in the position of beings who are sane and sober when engaged in trivial business and who gamble like madmen when confronted with serious issues—retail sanity and wholesale madness.” Such a conception of social science, Professor Strauss declares, not only leads to nihilism but, in fact, “is identical with nihilism.” Modern social scientists not only deny that “men can know what is good” but insist that that denial is required by the demands of tolerance and the cultivation of individuality.
The modern rejection of natural right, i.e. the rejection of the belief that there is a foundation in reality for the distinction between right and wrong in ethics and politics, takes place in the name of history or in the name of the distinction between so-called facts and values. The first two lectures examine each of these critically, with the second being devoted to a brilliant analysis of the meaning and limitations of the methodology of Max Weber. Underlying Weber's methodology, Professor Strauss points out, is the view that “reality is an infinite and meaningless sequence, or a chaos, of unique and infinitely divisible events, which in themselves are meaningless”—all meaning originating in the activity of the knowing subject. Not only is this a view of reality with which few people today would be satisfied, says Strauss, but it is also a view to which Weber himself was unable to adhere consistently. For he “could not deny that there is an articulation of reality that precedes all scientific articulation.” The subsequent lectures discuss the origin of the idea of natural right, the classical doctrine of natural right, the modern idea of natural right especially as conceived by Hobbes and Locke, and the crisis of modern natural right in Rousseau and Burke.
The rejection of natural right in the name of history is historicism, and it is with the rise of historicism and its limitations that the bulk of this book is concerned. Briefly stated, historicism is the doctrine that all thought is historically conditioned and hence relative. There is not, because there cannot be, any knowledge of an eternal, transhistorical order such as is presupposed by the theory of natural right. But historicism is open to the objection that it professes to be a truth of just such an eternal and transhistorical nature. It states that all truths are radically dependent upon the societies in which they emerge and so are relative to those societies; but this most fundamental truth is asserted as valid everywhere and always. Historicism attempts to meet this objection by the assumption of an absolute moment in history. At...
(The entire section is 1714 words.)