In the past couple of months, Kenneth Kemp and Robert Miller have provided excellent essays exploring the topic of “Religion and the Foundations of Morality,” to borrow Kemp’s title. Kemp’s argument for the existence of non-religious foundations for morality is superb, and Miller’s explanation of what religious belief adds to this non-religious morality is illuminating. Most Aristotelian-Thomists will find little to disagree with in either essay and much to admire in both. The problem, however, is that until Aristotelian-Thomists become politicians and judges or until politicians and judges become Aristotelian-Thomists (to adapt Plato’s phrase from the Republic), this sort of moral reasoning will find little purchase in the public arena, which is the sphere in which moral reasoning tends to have the highest stakes and the greatest influence on future generations.

Miller acknowledges in his essay that “our contemporary public discourse generally brackets the question of God’s existence and argues about morals on a methodically agnostic basis.” This might not be a problem if public discourse fell back on something like Kemp’s non-religious argument for morality—but, as anyone following public discourse these days knows well, this is far from the case. Contemporary public discourse is not only agnostic about the existence of God but also about the existence of any non-religious foundation for morality, such as Kemp’s “human nature” or the related concepts of natural law or natural rights. Talk of human nature, natural law, or natural rights is simply taboo.

The closest we get these days to a publicly-acknowledged basis for morality is the idea of “human rights,” an idea given birth in the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This idea is, however, not really an idea at all—it is a phrase that answers to very different ideas in different minds, and for most people a phrase that answers more to a vague feeling about justice than to any determinate idea at all. As Jacques Maritain, one of the UDHR’s principal drafters, describes it, the human rights affirmed in the UDHR represent a sort of overlap among many different, and often conflicting, ideas regarding morality. It expressed

a number of practical truths regarding [human beings’] life in common upon which they can agree, but which are derived in the thought of each of them . . . from extremely different, or even basically opposed, theoretical conceptions.

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Although Maritain didn’t appear to be concerned about this state of affairs, we certainly should be. You and I may agree that we shouldn’t kill John today, but if you think we shouldn’t kill John today because he possesses a natural right to life and I think we shouldn’t kill John today because I’d rather sleep in, this will lead to problems at some point down the line. Our agreement, though real and useful as far as it goes, is a pragmatic rather than a principled one. Maritain’s rather sanguine neglect of this and other profound difficulties introduced by the modern intellectual climate has, moreover, had widespread influence among post-Vatican II Catholics, who are generally more apt to absorb and accommodate than critically examine contemporary intellectual developments.

Leo Strauss, on the other hand—one of Maritain’s more well-known contemporaries and a fellow Walgreen Lecturer at the University of Chicago in the early ’50s—took a critical stance toward modern intellectual developments and emphasized the radical disjunction between pre-modern and modern understandings of justice, morality, or “natural right.” According to Strauss, modern political philosophers such as Machiavelli and Hobbes introduced a significant departure from earlier understandings of natural right or the natural law, a departure solidified and rendered permanent by modern scientific discoveries. The pre-modern intellectual world, including its characteristic understandings of justice and morality in terms of a teleological human nature, has been simply rejected by the moderns—and the only conceivable way to recover these pre-modern insights would be to reject the modern rejection.

Many conservative intellectuals—particularly Catholic ones—deny or neglect Strauss’s depiction of intellectual history and our current location within it, preferring to take Maritain’s tack of arguing for their positions from within the modern intellectual context or, alternatively, overlooking the crucial disagreements between this modern intellectual context and the pre-modern one of St. Thomas Aquinas or Aristotle. It is of this latter offense that Kemp’s and Miller’s essays may be guilty. If, as I think, Strauss is right that much of the modern intellectual context has been built on the presumed ruins of the pre-modern one inhabited by (among others) Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, the task of the modern Aristotelian-Thomist becomes more complicated.

The modern Aristotelian-Thomist needs to carefully avoid three tempting missteps: (1) downplaying the disjunction between the modern and pre-modern intellectual contexts; (2) embracing modern intellectual approaches uncritically; and (3) rejecting modern intellectual approaches entirely. The first involves a crucial misunderstanding of the society and culture that Aristotelian-Thomists are striving to improve; the second entails an abandonment of genuine Aristotelian-Thomism; and the third often indicates a more tenacious attachment to one’s preferred position than to the truth, which can be found even within predominantly false approaches. The first two mistakes may be imputed to Maritain and many more recent Catholic thinkers, while the third mistake is characteristic of Strauss and many of his followers.

Strauss was right that there is an identifiably “modern” period in intellectual history. It is defined by a rejection of the idea of any wider objective context within which the individual necessarily exists. The idea of eternal essences or natures in which individuals participate, the idea of a fixed, determinate and hierarchical organization of the universe, and the idea of the primacy of community over and above the individual have all been soundly rejected by the most important and influential philosophers beginning in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. While examples to the contrary may indeed be found, examples in support of this historical thesis quickly drown them out: Ockham, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Darwin, Nietzsche, and on and on. We live in an intellectual climate defined by individualism, subjectivism, and flux above all else.

A genuine Aristotelian-Thomist cannot find himself at home in such a climate; Maritain’s pragmatic inter-subjectivism and evolutionary natural law theory fit far too comfortably in the modern world. We may, nevertheless, recognize a grain of truth in the moderns’ appreciation of the moral status of the individual human being. That appreciation coheres well with Christian moral theology but not with pre-modern moral and political philosophy. The moderns’ mistaken rejection of the unchanging objective contexts within which the individual exists led, in the thought of a select few, to a more profound understanding of human dignity than is available in any of the pre-moderns—including Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. Locke’s nuanced and complex understanding of natural rights, in particular, provides an important philosophical elaboration on the Biblical account of humankind’s creation “in the image and likeness” of God. In tomorrow’s article, I will examine this concept in greater depth.

The modern intellectual context within which we live is profoundly at odds with genuine Aristotelian-Thomism, and nearly insurmountable obstacles must be overcome before such an Aristotelian-Thomism can become influential in public discourse. These obstacles should be soberly recognized and intrepidly confronted in the spirit of devotion to the truth, a devotion that might, on occasion, lead us to accept certain insights found within approaches we otherwise oppose.