Quote from Strauss

Jan 19, 2015 by

“About a generation ago, an American diplomat could still say that ‘the natural and the divine foundation of the rights of man … us self evident to all Americans.’  At about the same time a German scholar could still describe the difference between German thought and that of Western Europe and the United states by saying that the West still attached decisive importance to natural right, while in Germany the very terms ‘natural right’ and ‘humanity’ ‘have now become almost incomprehensibly … and have lost altogether their original life and color.’  While abandoning the idea of natural right and through abandoning it, he continued, German thought has ‘created the historical sense,’ and thus was led eventually to unqualified relativism.  What was a tolerably accurate description of German thought twenty-seven years ago would now appear to be true of Western thought.”  -Leo Strauss Natural Right and History

Now, when examining this quote, we must keep in mind that Leo Strauss is not a writer of today, but that Natural Right and History is a work from 1953.  Thus, when Strauss is talking about 27 years ago, he is actually talking about 1926.  In other words, prior to World War 2, we, Americans, believed that rights were natural, had a divine foundation, and were self-evident.  However, what does this mean?  What does it mean for a right to be natural?  Well, the antonym of natural would be artificial.  An artificial right is one which is created by Man.  Therefore a Natural right is one that develops naturally, regardless of the right holder or anyone else.  What does it me for a right to have a divine foundation?  Well, when something has a divine foundation, it has a foundation in God.  The Bible, for instance, would have a divine foundation, according to the Christian tradition, because it is believed to be influenced by the Holy Spirit.  Likewise, the Koran and Torah have divine foundations according tot he Islamic and Jewish traditions respectively.  The Monarchies of old, likewise, were also believed to have divine foundations, believing that their right to rule came from God.  Thus, for a right to have a divine foundation means that it is given to us by our creator.  Finally, what does it mean for something to be self-evident?  “A proposition is self-evident because the predicate is included in the essence of the subject, as “Man is an animal,” for animal is contained in the essence of man.  If, therefore, the essence of the predicate and subject be known to all, the proposition will be self-evident to all.”  -Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica.  In other words, being an animal is part of the definition of Man, thus the proposition is self-evident.  Thus, for a right to be self-evident, it has to be a part of the person who possesses the right.Now, knowing all of this: What does it mean for you to have a right that is natural, self-evident, and has a divine foundation.  It means that your right comes to you naturally, not through anyone, from God, so no man can override the right, and is a part of your essence, not something that can be taken away.  In other words, it is a right yours irrevocably, immutably, and intrinsically yours.

Now, Strauss continues to talk about German thought by bringing to light that German thought has rejected Natural Right and humanity in their original sense.  Now, in talking about American Rights, this refers to “all men are created equal” Declaration of Independence.  Thus, humanity losing its original meaning refers to the intrinsic equality that was a part of humanity.  Also, if natural right loses its meaning, that only, really, leaves us with artificial rights.  Thus, rights are given to us, not based on an equal playing ground.  When this belief is held, Strauss points out, relativism (the belief that right and wrong are not based on objective moral principles, but on changeable principles established by the society around us) takes hold.  This is an obvious end.  Natural rights are necessary for any non-relativistic morality.  When we say something is wrong, like killing another human, another way of phrasing the situation, albeit uncommon, is that it violates another person’s rights to take away their life.  All moral principles, in a rephrasing like this, are rights.  I have a right to truth, I have a right to my possessions, I have a right to be free of bodily harm, and so on.  However, when you take away these rights as being natural, this means that we are the one’s who institute the rights.  Thus, rights are based on the society around you.  If rights are based on the society around you, then morality is as well, leaving you with relativism.

The final part of Strauss states that what was a description of German thought is now true of Western thought.  How accurate do you think this is?  Do we think of rights as things which are natural to us, or are they merely things that we agree should not be violated, unless the situation demands it?  For instance, is freedom from torture a right?  Right to life for the unborn?  Right to a just legal system?  Freedom of Religion?  Are only some of these rights?  Are some of these natural and others artificial?  Is there such a thing as a Natural Right any more, or are we all just relativists now?

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