Loosely Connected Thoughts on Strauss, Aquinas, Ressourcement

by modestinus

[Note: I am writing these thoughts from memory. That is, I don’t have the works I cited directly in front of me and so if the very scant citations are wrong, I apologize. I hope, however, I haven’t done serious injustice to anyone’s thinking, even if they’re not cited directly.]

I highly doubt that when people hear the term “Ressourcement” they think of Leo Strauss. Strauss was neither a Christian nor, in any sense, a historical theologian. What Strauss actually was—a fraud; a genius; a true philosopher; a reactionary critic of modernity; etc.—does not concern me here. What concerns me is the somewhat interesting parallel that can be drawn between the Straussian project of returning and, indeed, refreshing the ground of philosophy and the Catholic “back to the sources” theological movement. Certain critics of Strauss (and of Strauss’s students—“the Straussians”) have argued that Strauss never really intended to return to the sources of Western philosophy at all, but rather used them to shield his own philosophical (if not ideological) agenda. He did this, according to some, by inventing a doctrine of “esotericism” whereby philosophers—true philosophers—throughout the ages concealed their real thoughts by practicing an art of careful writing whereby only very careful readers—the philosophically initiated—could truly access their teachings. Strauss has been called by his students (Michael and Catherine Zuckert) “the man who gave away the secrets.” Maybe. Other Straussians have argued that Strauss gave away nothing; he only showed the way to those who could understand that Strauss himself wrote esoterically. Balderdash or not, the plain truth remains that Strauss spent a lifetime writing very detailed, sometimes extremely elliptical, works on the philosophical pantheon: Plato, Aristotle, Maimonides, Averroes, Machiavelli, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Nietzsche, and, to a limited extent, Heidegger. He also made mention of several others who may or may not, in the Straussian judgment, have been true philosophers (e.g., Thucydides, St. Thomas Aquinas, Edmund Burke, and Max Weber). With the possible exception of Natural Right and History (NRH), Strauss never wrote any overtly philosophical works of his own (and even NRH isn’t “overt,” though it does contain philosophical critiques of historicism and positivism). He took on the mantle of the commentator, even the historian. And he always pointed back to the past.

Resoourcement, in Catholic circles at least, was also backwards looking. It intended to institute a recovery by diving into the history of Christian thought—orthodox and heretical alike—in order to recover the ground not of philosophy, but theology. The Catholic Church, according to these scholars, had lost its way due to the alleged sterility of neo-Scholasticism. The modern age—which has since morphed into the postmodern—had passed the Catholic Church by. Only by recalling what came before could the Church meaningfully engage what was directly before her. Maybe, or maybe not. Without getting into the acrimonious response that Ressourcement caused in the Church during the first half of the 20th C., I am sympathetic to the emerging view that Ressourcement was not an unqualified good. Moreover, Ressourcement, for better or worse, has revealed itself to be anything but a mere historical sojourn; it was bound up with a positive theological (if not philosophical) project that, according to its most virulent critics, undermined longstanding Christian doctrines. Like certain critics of Straussianism, Ressourcement’s critics maintain that the movement served to shadow the novel and problematic thinking of its espousers. Where the two critiques deviate substantially is at the level of historical accuracy. Ressourcement never maintained, for instance, that Christian theologians from the past wrote esoterically. Moreover, even some of Ressourcement’s critics concede that the movement did confer a benefit on the Church by bringing attention to orthodox Christian theologians whose works had fallen into obscurity due to inattention, a lack of reliable editions, or a mixture of both. Straussianism never, on its own, produced critical editions of philosophical works (though many Straussians have provided fresh, though perhaps not unproblematic, translations of many philosophical works that they believe had been obscured by the prejudices of historicist scholars).

The parallel that can be drawn between Straussianism and Ressourcement is interesting to the extent that despite Strauss’ obvious distance from things Catholic, he, at a few points in his scholarly career, orbited close enough to what one might call the quarrel between the neo-Scholastics and the Ressourcement theologians to raise some eyebrows. This will begin to become clearer if we look at Strauss’ limited, but controversial, engagement with St. Thomas Aquinas. Much to the consternation of some of Strauss’ Christian (even Catholic) readers, Strauss used his brief treatment of the Angelic Doctor in NRH to effectively dismiss the idea that there could ever be something like a “Christian philosophy.” Despite his deep indebtedness to Aristotle and his knowledge of pre-Christian philosophy, Aquinas betrayed the vocation of the true philosopher by making philosophy the handmaid of theology. Strauss’ openly stated proof of that fact lies in his examination of the concept of natural law in Aquinas. According to Strauss, Thomistic natural law is not the same as classical (Aristotelian) natural right. Aquinas, in effect, perverted natural right by importing the Patristic concept of synderesis in his treatment of natural law. Based on this reading, other Straussians have effectively reached the conclusion that Aquinas was, at most, a Christian theology who used philosophical concepts or jargon; he was surely not a philosopher because, according to Straussian doctrine, there can be no marriage of reason and revelation. Philosophy, by its very nature, is atheistic. This attitude stands in stark contrast to Strauss’ view of the medieval Jewish thinker Maimonides. According to the Straussian treatment of Maimonides, the Rambam wrote esoterically. That is, he wrote what appeared to be orthodox (or semi-orthodox) Jewish theology in an occasionally philosophical idiom, but underneath it all Maimonides was really just a philosopher—and not, by any means, an orthodox Jew. One Straussian, Thomas West, has challenged Strauss’ reading of Aquinas on the provocative (but likely unpersuasive) ground that Aquinas, too, wrote esoterically. According to West, Aquinas, due to his historical circumstances, had to use the conceptions of (Christian) natural law and morality in his works, but underneath it all he was really expressing the pre-Christian concept of natural right. Even if that reading were true, it wouldn’t change the fact that a plethora of other Straussian works (including those by “the master”) maintains the existence of a sharp distinction between reason and revelation or Athens and Jerusalem. According to Strauss, if revelation is true, then philosophy cannot represent the right way of life or the one thing needful. Strauss thought it was incumbent upon philosophy to refute revelation, and some later Straussians, like Heinrich Meier, believe—for some rather questionable reasons—that Strauss himself offered that proof (cf. Meier’s Leo Strauss and the Theologico-Political Problem).

While some Christians, particularly Catholics, look aghast at Strauss’ treatment of Aquinas, it is worth noting that Strauss believed or, at least expressed in his private correspondence to Eric Voegelin, that such an understanding of Aquinas and the distinction between philosophy and theology was consistent with orthodox Catholic thought. In other words, Strauss maintained that Catholicism itself left an open area for what one might call “pure philosophy,” i.e., philosophy divorced from any theological concepts. (The parallel to the pura natura controversy should now be coming into focus.) Voegelin, according to Fr. Ernest Fortin’s interpretation of the Strauss-Voegelin correspondence, cut in the exact opposite direction. He joined Henri de Lubac in rejecting the idea of “‘an order of pure nature’ for the simple reason that the only nature of which we have any experience is a nature that has already been elevated to the supernatural order” (cf. “The Strauss-Voegelin Correspondence: Two Reflections and Two Comments,” 56 Review of Politics 337 (1994)). (Fortin, as best as I can tell, agrees with the anti-Lubcan thesis that “if all is grace, then nothing is grace.”) In a sense then, Strauss, whose project paralleled Ressourcement in some fundamental ways, tacitly rejects one of the most profound philosophical-theological conclusions to emerge from Ressourcement while simultaneously defending—again, in a tacit sense only—the concept of “pure nature” that had developed in the Thomistic tradition. Strauss here plays the orthodox Catholic while Voegelin comes across as the unconcerned (and maybe even proud) heretic. (That Voegelin’s thought would come to be mistaken for Catholic thought, especially during the latter part of his life, should come as no surprise given what occurred in the Catholic Church after Vatican II.)

So, I have to wonder, was Strauss actually up to something here or was this all just a strange coincidence? I can only offer a couple of highly speculative thoughts. First and foremost, the record is pretty clear that Strauss had Catholic—even very Catholic—students. Frs. Fortin and James Schall are but two examples. It would seem to make sense, at a certain level, that Strauss would not want to make any claims that overtly stepped on what he took to be the orthodox view of the Catholic Church with respect to philosophy and theology. Remember, even though Strauss couldn’t consciously bring Aquinas into the philosophical pantheon, he still offered an apparent way for Catholics to dip into philosophy without directly contradicting the understanding of their chosen confession. Second, it’s entirely possible that beyond the pages of NRH, Strauss did not hold a sharply critical view of Aquinas-as-philosopher. West has suggested that Strauss’ critique of Aquinas was, in fact, a critique of certain Catholic thinkers such as Jacques Maritain just as Strauss’ harsh treatment of Edmund Burke was, in truth, a critique of the conservative traditionalist writers like Russell Kirk. Strauss, in an earlier review of Anthony Pegis’ two-volume Basic Writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas (which is reprinted in Strauss’ What is Political Philosophy?), had come to the defense of the Dumb Ox from what he took to be Pegis’ apparent embarrassment over the “bad science” (read: teleology) of Aquinas. It would seem that if students were going to turn to Aquinas, according to Strauss, they should return to him like they would any other great thinker: with the intent to understand him as he understood himself.

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