Creating Statesmen, Part 1: Aristotlean Natural Right

All material quoted below is from Leo Strauss’ Natural Right and History, “Classic Natural Right,” pp. 156-164

1. We begin by distinguishing between nature (Gk. physis) and convention (Gk. nomos). Convention we are all familiar with – men make words and laws; proper practice establishes something as a convention. Money is the ultimate extension of this reasoning; it stands for value but is nothing in-and-of itself. When invested, strangely enough, it can create more of itself despite having only an arbitrary relation to actual wealth. To some degree, artifacts – tools – reflect the conventional. A tool requires a technique, if it is not a technique itself. It is used to exercise control and the criteria for its validity is its effectiveness. A tool is not useless even if it should never be used.

But artifacts can lead us to reason an entirely other way. We may wonder why scientific laws don’t just allow us to fashion better tools, but allow us to marvel at how intricate the universe is. In such a case we marvel not at what is effective, but what is true. We may think about why we have the different words in different languages for the same thing. Finally, what provokes us into thinking that there is a natural order where human nature is a critical question is the issue of justice. We differ as to what is just, but all are agreed that something is just and something is unjust. And if we argue enough, we can at least see why people think one law is just and not another, if we don’t come to agree with their law as being reflective of something more truly just.

Now there are many who say that justice is merely a matter of following the law, and laws vary from society to society. So justice is purely a matter of convention. “Natural right” is the assumption that this view is full of crap – something must be “right” “naturally,” or “right by nature.” It could be the case that we argue about justice not because we’re stupid, but because we actually can prove one law is more just than another. Opinions, after all, stem from truth. If there was nothing that was true, then one opinion couldn’t possibly be better than another.

Notice that the way “nature” is being used here does not refer to “plants and animals and stuff outside the house.” The nature of a thing is informed by its end: an acorn is meant to become an oak tree. When reasoning about human nature, we consider man as a “rational animal” to begin with, and also consider his end, true happiness through pursuit of the virtues.

2. From Aristotle we get the phrase “rational animal” and also, I think, the example of the acorn becoming an oak tree. And yet Aristotle has views on “natural right” that should strike us as very strange. To wit:

According to Aristotle, there is no fundamental disproportion between natural right and the requirements of political society, or there is no essential need for the dilution of natural right…. A right which necessarily transcends political society, he gives us to understand, cannot be the right natural to man, who is by nature a political animal. Plato never discusses any subject – be it the city or the heavens or numbers – without keeping in view the elementary Socratic question, “What is the right way of life?” And the simply right way of life proves to be the philosophic life. Plato eventually defines natural right with direct reference to the fact that the only life which is simply just is the life of the philosopher. Aristotle, on the other hand, treats each of the various levels of beings, and hence especially every level of human life, on its own terms (156).

So right now you’re probably thinking Plato’s sharp divorce of the philosophical and political causes him to make a mistake, and that Aristotle nicely and neatly remedies this by asserting that politics is natural to man and hence we need not all be philosophers to be just. In making this move, you’ve forgotten that Plato is Aristotle’s teacher, and thus has literally schooled Aristotle. The first consequence of Aristotle’s thought isn’t so bad:

Aristotle says, then, simply that natural right is a part of political right. This does not mean that there is no natural right outside the city or prior to the city. To say nothing of the relations between parents and children, the relation of justice that obtains between two complete strangers who meet on a desert island is not one of political justice and is nevertheless determined by nature. What Aristotle suggests is that the most fully developed form of natural right is that which obtains among fellow-citizens; only among fellow-citizens do the relations which are the subject matter of right or justice reach their greatest density and, indeed, their full growth (157).

I realize this doesn’t sound problematic to you, but I do ask you to consider why Socrates and Plato consider philosophy to be such a radical endeavor. The philosopher being one who is true to his word entirely is the best citizen: his attachment to the laws is not contractual but freely and truly chosen. His attachment to his fellow-citizens is as ambitious as it is welcoming: with them he hopes to find and celebrate wisdom.

However, the second consequence of Aristotle’s thought on this matter drove the thinkers of the Middle Ages crazy:

The second assertion regarding natural right which Aristotle makes – an assertion much more surprising than the first – is that all natural right is changeable (157).

Aristotle, unlike us, is unwilling to gloss over the consequences of abandoning the philosopher as a standard. That all “natural right is changeable” probably means that infanticide can be justified, there is no absolute “right to life.” The idea that the truly just man “does no harm,” given to us from Plato’s Republic, has been completely abandoned – or has it? Strauss attempts to explain this very strange teaching:

By saying that in extreme situations the public safety is the highest law, one implies that the public safety is not the highest law in normal situations; in normal situations the highest laws are the common rules of justice. Justice has two different principles or sets of principles: the requirements of public safety, or what is necessary in extreme situations to preserve the mere existence or independence of society, on the one hand, and the rules of justice in the more precise sense, on the other. And there is no principle which defines clearly in what type of cases the public safety, and in what type of cases the precise rules of justice, have priority. For it is not possible to define precisely what constitutes an extreme situation in contradistinction to a normal situation (161).

Strauss says this Aristotlean teaching differs from Machiavelli in that Machiavelli denies natural right simply; there is no concern in the latter for a difference between the “every day” and “extremes.” Here, at least, Aristotle is trying to show that the things that preserve society don’t fatally compromise it. I do buy this sort of reasoning – I know I’ve said at times the reasoning used in war cannot be applied to our situation in peace. Something is wrong with using martial metaphor all the time, especially with regard to activities that should educate.

But I suspect Strauss is playing a rhetorical game here. Natural Right and History is ultimately about the principle behind the Declaration of Independence, and it is helpful when teaching politically ambitious people to suggest that the divide between classical thought and American Constitutionalism is not so sharp. Unfortunately, we are in a situation where people being ambitious is itself a problem, because wisdom is not about finding and taking on difficult questions, but rather whatever you think it is. There’s no ambition in a world where everyone already knows best.

For Aristotle, is it possible for the principle behind a society to be perceived as fatally compromised and yet the society still workable? I think the answer is “yes” based on “all natural right is changeable.” There are plenty of Aristotlean complaints that characterize the Spartan regime as inhuman, and yet it is never dismissed outright as unworkable [Note: I need to check this. I think a good argument can be advanced that it is unworkable]. I’m guessing right now the safe reading is that since politics itself is a nature-convention blend, the naturally just thing to do can be to merely defend convention, and not go out of one’s way to undermine the pieties which any political association assumes. This obviously narrows Strauss’ reading of “natural right is part of political right” – that is now literally true, and means where there is no politics, there is no natural right. The situation of two men on a desert island is a political situation, unless there is a natural good – higher than justice – that binds them, i.e. fraternity, or a lower good that requires a necessary association. Acting like animals hunting together does not require natural right, although there is a natural association.

3. If we do take Strauss’ reading seriously – and we have very good reason to take it seriously, our inquiry is meant to bring us to the truth as well as make our actions nobler – we find this:

Natural right must be mutable in order to be able to cope with the inventiveness of wickedness. What cannot be decided in advance by universal rules, what can be decided in the critical moment by the most competent and most conscientious statesman on the spot, can be made visible as just, in retrospect, to all; the objective discrimination between extreme actions which were just and extreme actions which were unjust is one of the noblest duties of the historian (161).

I don’t think this is an unfair or thoughtless conclusion, but it does mark our age as one especially hostile to the emergence of statesmen. Our historians are activists, lobbying in the here and now for very particular policies and willing to read history any way that will advance their cause. Furthermore, everyone has knowledge of universal rules that they can’t possibly defend before anyone else, but can apply in the voting booth.

We are in an insane situation, where prudence probably cannot emerge since there is no such thing as wisdom strictly speaking. We’ll pull through, but I’m not going to dumb this down; I would be an idiot to underestimate what we’re up against. For now, a few points from this discussion should be striking:

  1. The social character of knowledge about what is right. A common good, a serious view of justice, takes into account other views and doesn’t rely on facts alone but on other opinions.
  2. The delicateness of the political. Man is between beast and god, but boy is it easy for him to pretend to be either. Our tendency to anarchism as an ideal, our thought that the best government is the least government, can lead us to be inhuman for the seemingly most gentle of reasons.
  3. The necessity – and difficulty – of philosophy. Someone really does have to stand above, or else seeing the obvious is an issue. But the second someone stands above, we want to tear them down, esp. if they proclaim to know better.


  1. I was (badly) having a discussion just recently on some comment thread about this very subject – “de facto” rights versus “de jure” rights and their relation. The problem is that anything can be discussed in terms of “rights” – Aristotle might have been trying to hedge more than you give him credit for for that very reason. For example, you say two men hunting in a forest don’t have rights? Have you been hungry and hunting for food? They’re in a state of anarchy only until the meal is caught – then it’s back to social order. If you scored a kill alone and your “friend” knocked you down and took the best meat, you’d be angry. You’d naturally feel the type of injustice that lets you know that some right has been violated (if not precisely how to formulate it in words so that everyone will agree with you). The fact that a government can exist is built on a (sometimes unstated) right for people to associate and make agreements with one another. “Injustice” is a pretty strong, universally human emotion, whether they categorize the same things as “unjust” or not. The “convention” part is just codifying what a majority of people found unjust in the past, not what some “philosopher/statesman” tells them they should probably feel.

  2. @ ifatree: Thanks for your comment, but a few points of clarification, before we argue over whether the classical vision is correct or not. There are things you’re just straight up misrepresenting.

    You’re skipping over the social nature of man that necessitates manners of some sort, and demanding that nature make itself manifest however we behave, good or bad. That kind of reasoning is characteristic of the moderns, who ditch nature altogether. Not everything lives up to its nature, though.

    You’re also making a pretty big mistake with “convention.” For Plato and Aristotle it is what a majority of people found unjust, and I think it is treated as such in the post. But a philosopher has to be clear on what the truth is; if the conventional admits of exceptions, it must be treated.

  3. Addendum: The considerations on the changeability of natural right and the conventions which establish society are a somewhat garbled version of what was taught to me by Leo Paul de Alvarez in class on Aristotle’s Politics some years ago.

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