Natural Right and History

by Leo Strauss

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Leo Strauss’s collection of lectures collected in the book Natural Right And History is the philosopher’s argument in favor of an objective and rational ethical and political system, which goes against the historical concept. A historicist would argue that values such as “right and wrong” or debates about the best form of government are determined by historical material factors such as economics, war, or anything that is a product of the unique circumstances at a certain point in history. Marx is a primary example of a historical thinker: he asserts that the struggle between the classes and the manipulation of the working class by the ruling class explains how people derive their ethical values and attitudes towards one another.

Arguing against the historicist view, Strauss says that there are values that transcend historical situations. “It’s all relative” is the antithesis of Strauss’s view. Instead, Strauss states that philosophy allows humanity to deal with eternal truths outside of any historical setting or social convention. The term “natural right” can be interpreted literally: it is the view that some things are “naturally right,” that ethical and political views can be defended with the same certainty as the “natural” laws of science.

Chapter one of Natural Right And History compares the two concepts. Chapter two discusses the distinction between facts and values, targeting social scientist Max Weber’s view that studying culture cannot tell humanity the best way to live, and showing that even Weber could not help falling into questions about natural right. The next three chapters cover the origins of the idea of natural right, from the pre-Socratics to the contractarian philosophers Locke and Hobbes. Along the way, Strauss reviews arguments raised against this idea throughout history and how the concept split off from religious ideas. The last chapter uses Rousseau and Edmund Burke to discuss the “crisis” of natural right, some of the common arguments against it, and what is at stake.

Strauss is careful to distinguish philosophy from religion, because philosophy is the crucial tool in this crisis. Religion says that mankind can achieve truth, justice, and a good life only through unquestioned obedience to divine authority. Philosophy, on the other hand, allows humans to achieve “the Good” unaided, through free inquiry, rationalism, and without deferring to external supernatural explanations. Yet philosophy, through Strauss’s examples, actually helps people discover that there is such a thing as an eternal truth that would hold regardless of what time period, social class, or other circumstance that any one person lives in.

Note that the subject of Strauss’s book is not explaining what those truths are, but to first show that such an objective concept exists in the first place. Natural Right And History was published in 1953, i.e., not long after World War II. Strauss was a Jewish man born in Germany who couldn’t return to his home because of the Nazi party’s rise to power. The Nazis rejected the concept of natural right in favor of “might makes right,” the idea that the strong shape history, make the rules, and determine what is fair. In the academic philosophical tradition, Strauss also saw aspects of this approach dating back to reactions against the eighteenth-century Enlightenment’s emphasis on science and liberty, through Nietzsche’s theories, and culminating with Marx. The issue for Strauss was not only whether anyone would want to live in a world where the powerful get to make all of the rules, but whether this position is even correct. For Strauss, this attitude is not only ethically wrong, but objectively invalid.

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