So now that we’re “cooking with gas,” as the great man says, let me say something to the Porchers-with whom we’ve just become friends—about Strauss and “us,” keeping in mind that there are big details here that Ralph and the Ralphians wouldn’t fully embrace:

Strauss thinks of the individual as both modern and Christian. The truth is that the modern individual depends on distinctively Christian premises but is not Christian. The status of the individual—the being invented by Hobbes, Locke, etc.—is not the same thing as the status of individuality.

Individuality depends on the insight that each human being exists for himself as a whole—or not just a part. He or she is a unique, irreplaceable being with a personal identity. The person is, among other things, a part of a family, country, friendship, and so forth, but the person can’t be reduced merely to being a part. A being with individuality knows himself to have a real personal fate and so real personal responsibility. A person is always a who and not a what, and so God is also a who, not a what.

The person can’t be reduced to the impersonal rational “systems” that can describe pure mind or pure body. Strauss says the world is the home of the mind, but no person—not even the character Socrates invented by Plato and Xenophon—is pure mind and so no person can be fully incorporated into some impersonal whole that would be fully satisfying to minds. Strauss says that the real concern of the philosopher is eternity or not ephemeral human lives, and physicists at least typically have relied on impersonal laws of nature characteristic of matter that’s neither created nor destroyed. But no person is eternal, which is not the same thing as saying persons are necessarily ephemeral.

Both Strauss and the physicists seem to say that a man is most fully himself when he loses himself in contemplation of eternity, but the truth is that, deep down, persons are incapable of losing themselves, of not knowing the truth about themselves in some sense. Darwin (not to mention many materialists ancient and modern) says that everything can be described in terms of bodies—in terms of the impersonal process of evolution. But no person can be fully described as the “species fodder” Darwin says every living being is, and persons never really fully believe that the Darwinian teaching applies to them, to their personal experiences. Strauss says that the philosopher, most deeply, is a citizen of the whole, but the person can’t be reduced to a part of some necessarily impersonal eternal whole called “nature” or to part of the evolutionary process that we now call “nature.” No person is a citizen of a whole.

The real existence of the person—the being with individuality—was defended by St. Augustine in his polemic against the serious theologies of the Greeks and Romans—natural theology and civil theology. Both reduce the person to nothing more than a part of a whole—either nature or “the city.” St. Augustine, of course, denied that persons are most deeply “political animals.” They are, in truth, aliens or pilgrims in the country where they find themselves. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have political inclinations and responsibilities, but they can’t be fully described by them. No person can be fully described by either “philosophy” or “law” or both, in the senses Strauss means them.

The truth is that the person is, most deeply, not a political but a social animal, but not merely the gregarious chimp described by Darwin. He is “hardwired”—so to speak—to be a relational being, to find his own identity in relation to other persons. Because God is a person, he could not exist alone, but always in relation to other persons. That’s why the doctrine of the Trinity is indispensable for understanding him.

So the modern individual—in his sovereign emotional self-sufficiency—is no person. He’s stuck with creating himself out of nothing. And even God didn’t do THAT. More to come.

Articles by Peter Lawler

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