Thursday, November 28, 2013
Nietzschean natural law?
Some years ago, at an initially friendly dinner after a conference, I sat next to a fellow Catholic academic, to whom I mildly expressed the opinion that it had been a mistake for Catholic theologians to move away from the arguments of natural theology that had been so vigorously championed by Neo-Scholastic writers. He responded in something like a paroxysm of fury, sputtering bromides of the sort familiar from personalist and nouvelle theologie criticisms of Neo-Scholasticism. Taken aback by this sudden change in the tone of our conversation, I tried to reassure him that I was not denying that the approaches he preferred had their place, and reminded him that belief in the philosophical demonstrability of God’s existence was, after all, just part of Catholic doctrine. But it was no use. Nothing I said in response could mollify him. It was like he’d seen a ghost he thought had been exorcised long ago, and couldn’t pull out of the subsequent panic attack.He was not, it should be emphasized, a theological or political liberal. Far from it. Nor is his response, though extreme, as unusual as you might think. There is something about Thomism, Neo-Scholasticism, and “rationalistic” approaches to religion and morality in general that drives a certain kind of religious sensibility, even a certain kind of conservative religious sensibility, absolutely bonkers. I’ve seen it over and over again. Give such a person a purely philosophical argument for God’s existence or a natural law argument for some moral conclusion and he will start convulsing like the repairman in Brazil when asked for form 27B-6. He won’t point to any actual flaw in the argument. He’s just offended by the very idea of it. “B-but there’s no appeal to faith, or scripture, or tradition! And you made use of pagan concepts! And you didn’t shout ‘Praise Jesus!’ There must be something wrong with it!”
What explains this mindset? Constitutional impatience with (or simple incapacity for) conceptual precision and argumentative rigor? A Pharisaical repugnance at the notion that non-Christian thinkers might have had something of importance to say about God or morality? Resentment of the suggestion that a mere philosophical argument could succeed where Bible thumping or rhetorical eloquence has failed?
One thing’s for sure, the religious critics of natural theology and natural law seem chronically unable to provide any good arguments for their misgivings. I’ve had reason to consider several woolly attacks on natural law theory in recent months (e.g. here, here, and here), and another, by Thomas M. Cothran, has recently been posted at the website of the journal Anamnesis. It’s hysterical, in every sense of the word. Cothran assures his readers that we Neo-Scholastic natural law theorists, our Thomism and Catholicism notwithstanding, are really implicitly beholden to… wait for it… wait for it… “a Nietzschean overcoming of Christianity.” The point of Garrigou-Lagrange’s Reality, it seems, was to provide a deceptively pious dust jacket within which to hide your copy of The Antichrist. Who knew? No doubt Henri de Lubac, who is (as the bylaws of Catholic anti-natural law polemic require), the hero of Cothran’s piece. Nouvelle theologie repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as a half-baked rant on the interwebs.
These things seem to be painted by the numbers. Don’t name any specific targets. Attack straw men. Ignore crucial distinctions. Relentlessly conflate historical connections with logical connections. Assert with confidence, but without supporting argument. Keep your prose purple. Cothran hits all these marks of the genre, and adds one of his own: the gratuitous smear. Evidently proud of this new tactic, he leads with it:
While natural lawyers have a disproportionate influence in the resistance to same sex marriage, they remain relatively silent (or else ignored) on, say, usurious lending practices or unjust wages—for this reason, one might forgive those who suspect the newfound enthusiasm for natural law arguments to be motivated more by opportunism than conviction. (A proportionate insistence on economic and social justice would go a long way to proving this suspicion unfounded.)
Of course, what counts as “usury” has been a notoriously vexed problem for centuries within natural law theory and Catholic moral theology, and determining exactly what strict justice requires vis-à-vis wages in various specific concrete circumstances (as opposed to general principle) isn’t always much easier to determine. By contrast, opposition to “same-sex marriage” is, given the standard natural law understanding of sexual morality, a no-brainer. And of course, “same-sex marriage” is an entirely new phenomenon that has raised urgent political and legal questions, whereas the disputes over usury and the just wage are long-standing. These facts provide a pretty obvious explanation of the greater attention contemporary natural law theorists devote to the one issue rather than to the others -- if an explanation (as opposed, say, to a cheap rhetorical point) is what one is really looking for.
Cothran’s main calumny against natural law theorists, however, is the “Nietzschean” nonsense. He sets it up with the following egregious mischaracterization of the natural law position:
[I]t is one thing to resort to the natural law tradition for arguments devoid of explicitly Christian premises, and another entirely to present the natural law tradition as a form of secular reason. Unfortunately, proponents often advertise natural law on the grounds of its secularity. In the words of one natural law theorist, “Objectively true moral conclusions can be derived from premises that in no way presuppose any purported divine revelation, any body of scriptural writings, or any particular religious tradition.”
End quote. Incidentally, the natural law theorist Cothran quotes here -- without attribution -- is me. Specifically, he’s quoting from the first of several pieces I recently wrote on David Bentley Hart’s critique of natural law theory. Now you might be wondering: “Where does Feser, either in the line Cothran quotes or anywhere else, characterize natural law theory as ‘a form of secular reason’?” The answer, of course, is: “Nowhere.” For to say that natural law theory does not appeal to any purported divine revelation, any body of scriptural writings, or any particular religious tradition, is not to say that it makes use of no theological notions at all. On the contrary, a complete natural law theory includes considerations from natural theology (as distinct from revealed theology). Hence it can hardly be described as “secular” in the sense Cothran evidently has in mind.
But that doesn’t stop Cothran from proceeding to dress up his ridiculous straw man a little further before attacking it. He writes:
There is… a gross historical anachronism in confusing the present dichotomy between the religious and secular (which originated in the sixteenth century from developments in Protestant theology) with the quite different distinction between faith and reason of a more ancient provenance. It is clearly erroneous to ascribe to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle only a pure, “non-religious” form of reason—Socrates had his daemon, after all, Plato the spirit Eros to lift his soul to the divine, and Aristotle named his metaphysics (quite accurately) “theology.”…
End quote. Once again the incredulous longtime reader of this blog will be wondering where on earth Cothran has gotten this bizarre notion that I (or any other natural law theorist for that matter) would characterize Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle as “non-religious” or “secular” -- when, of course, the truth is that the contributions of the Greek philosophers to natural theology is a theme I fairly relentlessly harp on about.
Now what is true is that I have said that a partial grasp of the natural law can be had without reference to God. The reason is that natural law has its proximate ground in human nature, and human nature can to some extent be known apart even from the truths of natural theology (just as knowledge of matters of chemistry, physics, logic, mathematics, etc. can be had without reference to natural theology). To be sure, as I have also always maintained, to see the moral significance of human nature requires seeing the world through classical metaphysical eyes -- in particular, through an essentialist and teleological metaphysics. But that this metaphysics entails the key theses of natural theology is something that requires further argumentation. Hence there are going to be certain truths of natural law -- for example, that lying, stealing, dishonoring one’s parents, murder, and adultery are objectively wrong -- that can be known even by someone who does not see that the essentialist and teleological metaphysics that makes their wrongness intelligible also leads to a classical theist picture of the world.
Once we see that it does lead there, though, we have a natural theology that must be part of any complete account of natural law. We see in particular that even as a matter of natural law, man’s highest good is God -- something pagans like Aristotle and Plotinus knew well, as I have often emphasized (rather than denied). We will also see that natural law enjoins on us various religious duties, whether or not we accept any purported divine revelation. Again, natural law theory does not as such appeal to revelation, scripture, etc., but that does not mean that it is “secular” or that it makes no use of theology of any sort. To fail to see this is to fail to see the difference between natural theology (the kind that appeals to purely philosophical arguments) and revealed theology (the kind that appeals to special revelation). (I have discussed the relationship between natural law and natural theology in previous posts -- such as here and here -- as well as in chapter 5 of Aquinas.)
The distinction between natural and revealed theology is something Cothran ignores, however. That is precisely how he generates his straw man. The natural law theorist qua natural law theorist does not appeal to divine revelation, “therefore” (Cothran reasons) he must be committed to “a form of secular reason” -- as if these were the only two options. The fallacy of false alternative having facilitated the construction of his straw man, Cothran is now ready for his crescendo, the affixing of the “Nietzschean” nametag on the Neo-Scholastic effigy, so that the bonfire can begin:
To conceive of human nature aside from revelation requires, at this point in history, a Nietzschean overcoming of Christianity, an extirpation of God’s transformation of mankind, and perhaps even a (however strategic) negation of the hypostatic union….
To conceive of a natura pura (i.e., a human nature devoid of reference to the supernatural and transparent to reason) we would need to rid our traditions of thought of the vestiges of Christian revelation—and our model, at least in this respect, would be Nietzsche…
[A] pure nature can perhaps be achieved by a labor of thought that clips the wings of the human spirit. Hear the call of Zarathustra: “Stay true to the earth, my brothers, with the power of your virtue! Let your gift-giving love and your knowledge serve the meaning of the earth! Do not let them fly away from earthly things and beat with their wings against eternal walls! Ah, there has always been so much virtue that has flown away! Lead, like me, the flown virtue back to the earth.”
End quote, mercifully. Now, how does a grown man get himself to believe such tosh? The answer, as the attack on natura pura indicates, is by reading lots of de Lubac. In Surnaturel, de Lubac famously charged the Thomists’ doctrine of natura pura or pure nature -- the notion that man has a purely natural end distinguishable from the supernatural end of the beatific vision -- with opening the door to the secularization that has characterized the modern world. Cothran echoes the theme:
The danger of natural law, then, is this: however successful natural law might be as a rhetorical strategy the Christian idea of human nature cannot be reconciled with the secular location of human fulfillment in finite worldly ends: wealth, pleasure, autonomy, duty, even friendship or statecraft…
This extrinsic relation between the natural and the supernatural characteristic of neo-scholastic thought shares a secret lineage with modern secularism. The idea of a purely natural end, a natura pura, devoid of an ontological drive for God, emerged at first as a hypothetical possibility…
But as anyone knows who has bothered to read what the Thomists in question actually wrote, this is simply a ludicrous, and indeed defamatory, misrepresentation of their position. When Neo-Scholastics and other Thomists write about a purely natural end, they don’t have in mind mere worldly goods like wealth, pleasure, statecraft, etc., and they do not regard natura pura as a state “devoid of an ontological drive for God.” On the contrary, as Lawrence Feingold writes in The Natural Desire to See God According to St. Thomas Aquinas and His Interpreters:
[D]e Lubac understands the state of a purely natural happiness as one in which man would be basically self-sufficient and closed into himself, not needing God’s aid for his beatitude, a notion which he rightly finds repugnant. However, it should be noted that this is not actually taught by the Thomists targeted by de Lubac. On the contrary, they view it as a state of beatitude that can be achieved only through the aid of God, but realized, in a way proportionate to man’s nature, in a loving contemplation of God as grasped through His work of creation. (p. 314)
It is only the intimate knowledge of the divine essence entailed by the beatific vision that Thomists regard as a supernatural rather than natural end. Our natural end is not other than God, however; it is, rather, just a merely natural knowledge of God, less perfect than that which is available through grace alone.
There is rich irony here, for Cothran swooped into my combox a couple months back to complain that I had misrepresented de Lubac, though he was never able to show exactly how. (It soon became obvious enough that what really set him on edge was that I had dared to disagree with his hero.) And yet here he is egregiously misrepresenting Neo-Scholastic Thomists in general and me in particular. Add hypocrisy to the list of the foibles of the natural law critics.
And maybe intellectual dishonesty too, though charity requires that I note that simple ignorance might be an alternative source of this further howler from Cothran:
As a matter of historical scholarship, there is no longer much controversy: Cajetan and Suarez erred in their exegesis of Aquinas.
What Cothran is alluding to here is the nouvelle theologie view that for centuries Thomists had been misreading Aquinas -- just like, you know, St. Paul was “really” a Lutheran and the Catholics had somehow gotten him all wrong -- with St. Thomas up in heaven desperately imploring our Lord to hurry up and send de Lubac to set everyone straight. It seems to be common nouvelle theologie shtick to pretend that this has simply been established, everyone knows it, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, etc., but that’s sheer bluff. In fact the debate over de Lubac’s claims about Aquinas and the Thomist tradition continues vigorously, as is evidenced not only by Feingold’s book, but by books like Steven Long’s Natura Pura: On the Recovery of Nature in the Doctrine of Grace, Ralph McInerny’s Praeambula Fidei: Thomism and the God of the Philosophers, Bernard Mulcahy’s Aquinas’s Notion of Pure Nature and the Christian Integralism of Henri de Lubac, and Serge-Thomas Bonino’s edited volume Surnaturel: A Controversy at the Heart of Twentieth-Century Thomistic Thought.
One more for the road. In good de Lubacian fashion, Cothran, blurring the distinction between the natural and the supernatural, assures us that:
Only from a theological point of view, a preexistent view of the supernatural, could an independent nature come into view—both chronologically (i.e., the concept of a secular or imminent [sic] nature did not precede the concept of the supernatural in time) or logically (i.e., the natural is always defined in contradistinction to the supernatural).
Cothran’s claim is twofold, as are the problems with it, viz. historical falsity and philosophical incoherence. For one thing, the concept of an immanent nature did precede the concept of the supernatural in time. (I leave aside the “secular” stuff, which, as I’ve already noted, is a red herring.) The Greeks had, in its essentials, the concept of “nature” operative in natural theology and natural law, but they did not have the relevant concept of the “supernatural,” which is Biblical.
What takes the cake, though, is the casual confidence with which Cothran makes so manifestly problematic a statement as “the natural is always defined in contradistinction to the supernatural.” “Supernatural,” of course, means “above or beyond the natural.” That is to say, the notion of the natural is conceptually prior to that of the supernatural -- just as the notion of a highway is conceptually prior to that of a superhighway, or, for that matter, just as the notion of a man is conceptually prior to that of Nietzsche’s “superman.” Not only is the natural not “always defined in contradistinction to the supernatural,” it is never so defined.
Well, almost never. Here’s one case where it is, and one further irony. If you read contemporary naturalist philosophers, you will find they have a devil of a time giving a precise definition of what they mean by “natural.” (Contrast this with Aristotle, who has no trouble defining the natural in the Physics as that which flows from an intrinsic principle. But modern naturalists don’t want to take on board Aristotelian notions like substantial form or the like.) The tendency is to settle on defining the natural as whatever is not supernatural. (They may not know what they like, you see, but they know what they dislike.) In other words, contemporary naturalists essentially define the natural “in contradistinction to the supernatural.”
So, there you have it: Thomas Cothran in bed with modern naturalists. Poetic justice for someone who would accuse Neo-Scholastic Thomists (of all people) of being crypto-Nietzscheans (of all things).