Metaphysics Ancient and Modern
The August/September issue of First Things features what appears to be the final installment of David Bentley Hart’s “critique” of natural law. It also marks the end of his public debate with classical Thomist Edward Feser. Feser’s blog post, “Hart Stopping,” features links to the earlier installments of their back n’ forth, plus Feser’s final comment on Hart. Hart’s last piece on the matter, unfortunately, is not available for non-FT subscribers.
Though it never quite took on the mantle of being an Orthodox/Catholic brouhaha, it wouldn’t be entirely incorrect to interpret the debate that way. From the moment Hart launched his first salvo against the natural law tradition, certain Orthodox Christians who write for the American Conservative and Red Egg Review (not to mention troves of message-board-dox), were praising Hart’s critique; Catholics, understandably, were less-than-impressed. Regardless of what one might think about Feser’s personal politics, he can knife-fight for Thomism, and by extension natural law, with the best of them. Unlike many of Hart’s interlocutors over the years, Feser repeatedly cut to the fact that Hart often dealt in generalizations and dismissals — under the cover of florid prose — rather than the matter at hand. Perhaps Hart does have some devastating things to say about natural law, but as Feser points out repeatedly, we wouldn’t know it; Hart rarely appears to know exactly which natural law he is attacking.
As those who follow the often arcane debates concerning natural law know, natural law today is typically divided between the “classic natural law” (CNL) of the Thomistic-Scholastic tradition (with roots reaching back to Aristotle and the Stoics) and the “new natural law” (NNL) promoted most famously by John Finnis, Germain Grisez, and Robert George. The primary distinction between these two “schools” is the former’s adherence to a premodern metaphysics which embraces teleology and the latter’s rejection of it. NNL, as the story goes, is “aware” of the fact that modern science has KO’d premodern metaphysics, especially teleology, and therefore presents itself as a reasonable and rational alternative to CNL’s hewing to an outmoded, premodern scientific worldview. According to Feser, Hart swings at, and misses, both camps.
While neither Hart nor Feser deal with it directly, the expression “natural law” is, at the popular level at least, open to further confusions given the arguably unique manner Enlightenment-era thinkers (e.g., John Locke) and their progeny (e.g., Richard Epstein) use it. Moreover, there are those who promote a type of “natural law” which would more aptly be called the “law of nature,” i.e., using the brutal realities of the natural world as a defense for behaviors decent persons should find morally repugnant. It seems to me that one way to discuss the problem of natural law, from an empirical perspective at least, would be to point out all the ways the expression is used and abused and, from there, present a case that the concept has become so muddied as to be practically useless in everyday moral discourse. Sure, natural-law proponents could always come back and say that such critiques do not overturn natural law so much as point to the need for a clarification of the concept, but at least the natural-law critic would be on fairly secure ground. In fact, Hart’s best claim in his critique pieces is that natural-law arguments today fail to convince a broad spectrum of human beings.
Returning to the question of metaphysics, it is today assumed that the premodern metaphysics of teleology is dead and buried. The only “use” it might have is for historians interested in understanding the worldview of earlier eras. This assumption has become so widespread that, as noted earlier, NNL has become, according to some, the last tenable bastion of natural-law theory available. At least there is consistency there. In Natural Right and History (NRH), Leo Strauss called attention to the peculiar reality of certain thinkers trying to adhere to the tenets of modern science while also embracing premodern teleology in the moral realm. Strauss made it clear, during his explication of classical natural right (which, in some important respects, is distinct from natural law, though I’ll set that to the side for right now), he wasn’t attempting to resurrect premodern teleology as a steppingstone to overcoming historicism and nihilism. Strauss’s project was far more ambitious. As he set in motion in NRH, and then cryptically discussed in later works, Strauss wished to divorce the possibility of natural right (and the possibility of philosophy) from the possibility of premodern metaphysics (including teleology). In other words, the advent of non-teleological science did not spell the end of the possibility of premodern philosophy, or a “return to the ancients.” Strauss’ Plato, for instance, was decidedly non-metaphysical. In fact, the appeal to metaphysics found in the works of the ancients and their medieval Jewish and Islamic adherents was, in Strauss’ bold and controversial interpretation, window dressing.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that any classical Thomist or adherent to CNL worth their salt should reject this aspect of Strauss’ reading of the philosophical tradition of the West. Ironically, however, there remains a contingent of Catholic (though not necessarily Thomistic) thinkers who see Strauss as an ally, perhaps because they fail to see the implications of his more mature works. Very few casual readers of Strauss, after all, ever make it past NRH — a work which is also laced with numerous cryptic passages.
Feser, it seems, is bolder than Strauss, Whereas Strauss’ works laid out a roadmap for returning to, or perhaps creating, a non-metaphysical premodern philosophy, Feser wants to resuscitate premodern metaphysics as part of a larger project to put CNL back into philosophical circulation. Feser is intelligent and consistent enough to know that there can be no false union between premodern teleology and modern science; the latter “worldview” (if it can be called that) has to be put in its proper place first. Feser isn’t alone in this, for there are also “Straussians” — students and/or adherents of Leo Strauss — who, roughly speaking, believe in the same thing. Instead of embracing their teacher’s muted rejection of metaphysics, they see Strauss as (inadvertently?) opening up the way for questioning whether modern science warrants the primacy of place it has provided itself over and against classical philosophy. (A good popular example of this strand of thinking is Leon Kass’ April 2007 Commentary article, “Science, Religion, and the Human Future.”)
For what it’s worth, I find the project of bringing down or, at least, humbling the tenets of scientism (which is what modern science has become) salutary. How effective it will be on a popular level is beyond me, though I have my doubts that contemporary prejudices will be overturned by a handful of academic books. In the meantime, natural law, particularly CNL, will remain, in the eyes of most, an intellectual artifact unworthy of serious consideration. Given that, what do we do in the interim? What discourses-with-purchase are still available? Reading his natural-law criticisms in the most charitable light possible, perhaps that is what Hart is ultimately driving at. The world can’t wait for another paradigm shift.