Sunday, May 14, 2006

Text and Pretext at Claremont

The Claremont Institute's bloggers have of late been souring my opinion of the Straussians. After Claes Ryn's vituperative Philadelphia Society speech against his bete noir, neo-Jacobinism, Claremont bloggers have been all atwitter about Professor Ryn's Burkeanesque suspicion towards abstraction. They've put forward many catty retorts, such as claiming Ryn would have been among those who poisoned Socrates. To these remarks Ryn has responded with patient explanation, with a thoroughness lacking in his PhillySoc speech which catalyzed the dispute.

Yet the Claremontistas continue to snipe with snideness, showing little substantial engagement with Ryn's thought. Their responses are cavalier and curt, qualities one would expect from pundits, not scholars. The whole endeavor reminds one of a child repeatedly attempting to strike a patient elder with a grime-caked flyswatter, only to be parried easily by an adult index finger. From Matthew J. Peterson comes one such attempt to swat:

Of course, Ryn means that we can’t know moral principles in the abstract. What about the ten commandments? Would Ryn say that "'Thou shall not murder' endorsed in the abstract, without regard to what it might mean in practice in a particular historical situation, is pernicious?" Or as Professor Jaffa asked, what about Jesus's statement that "Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets?" Ryn answered that "Jesus's sayings engage the religious and moral imagination" and "defy strictly rational explanation." Maybe so, but has Ryn proven that we are not able to understand the clear, rational meaning of the "golden rule?"

Peterson and his colleagues have invoked Saint Thomas Aquinas as a teacher of unchanging abstract principles, so let's examine Aquinas' consideration of the question "Is the Natural Law Changeable?" Aquinas had to resolve such moral imperatives as those found in the Ten Commandments with Biblical events where God commanded apparent transgressions of the moral law. His second objection to an unchanging natural law proceeds as follows:

"Further, the slaying of the innocent, adultery, and theft are against the natural law. But we find these things changed by God: as when God commanded Abraham to slay his innocent son (Genesis 22:2); and when he ordered the Jews to borrow and purloin the vessels of the Egyptians (Exodus 12:35); and when He commanded Osee to take to himself "a wife of fornications" (Hosea 1:2). Therefore the natural law can be changed."

The Angelic Doctor's reply to this objection reads as follows:
All men alike, both guilty and innocent, die the death of nature: which death of nature is inflicted by the power of God on account of original sin, according to 1 Kgs. 2:6: "The Lord killeth and maketh alive." Consequently, by the command of God, death can be inflicted on any man, guilty or innocent, without any injustice whatever. In like manner adultery is intercourse with another's wife; who is allotted to him by the law emanating from God. Consequently intercourse with any woman, by the command of God, is neither adultery nor fornication. The same applies to theft, which is the taking of another's property. For whatever is taken by the command of God, to Whom all things belong, is not taken against the will of its owner, whereas it is in this that theft consists. Nor is it only in human things, that whatever is commanded by God is right; but also in natural things, whatever is done by God, is, in some way, natural, as stated in the I, 105, 6, ad 1.

Aquinas, of course, holds any such changes in natural law to be rare and of secondary importance to the prime and truly unchanging mandate of natural law, namely to obey the will of God. God is the only necessary being, while both natural law and humanity itself are contingent in their own way. When this position is ignored today, one ends up with Christians inadvertently aiding those atheists who, citing those accounts in Scripture scandalous to modern ears, charge God with mass-murder and human rights violations.

The Claremont Institute, being a non-confessional organization, is hampered from engaging the Christian tradition on its own terms and so ends up cherry-picking Scripture and Tradition to detrimental effect. The Ten Commandments were meant first for living, and then for philosophical reflection. They make little sense on their own without reference to God and His formation of the Hebrew people. The works of Aquinas himself are best read while in a regimen of prayer and fasting, not in a hung-over university seminar or a petty weblog debate. There's pithy remark that goes "A text without a context is a pretext." If Claremont continues to indulge in such pretexts, the Straussians will soon gain a reputation for incompetence to accompany their comic-like reputation for dissimulation.

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