So Paul Gottfried has written a long and fascinating comment on what I said about the Strauss-Burke conference. I think he confuses somewhat my own view with my sumary of Strauss’s, and everywhere he thinks I’m saying what Strauss didn’t, I think he’s wrong. But let me pass over that to what I think is the key section of Paul’s polemical commentary:
Finally Im not sure what Lawler is trying to tell us in this passage: Burke is right that the appeal to natural rights, by itself, is destructive of all order. That doesnt mean that the appeal to natural rights can be regarded as superfluous. My response to this special pleading is why not? There are perfectly usable political-moral theories that have nothing to do with Lockean natural right and which do not require me to think in atomistic social terms or ascribe to all human beings at birth someones wish list of rights.
There I’m summarizing what Strauss learned from what he believed was Burke’s rhetorical failure. Strauss, in that spirit, replaced “natural rights” with “natural right,” which does not require one “to think in atomistic social terms or ascribe to all human beings at birth someone’s wish list of rights.” Our Jim Ceaser has said more than once that when his project is to upgrade “natural rights” with natural right—with a classical vision of the best constitution or regime—in mind. For my own view, I think Strauss made a huge error by dissing Thomistic “natural law”—as a legalistic impediment to the latitude required by statesmen—with natural right.
The word “superfluous” is Strauss’s, and it reminds us of Federalist 49, where the appeal to the veneration that time bestows on everything is not to be regarded as superfluous to perpetuation of even a reasonable constitution. I’ve heard our Jim say more than once that 49 is his favorite Federalist . It is, of course, the most Burkean one.
From a certain view, neither nature nor history properly understood can be regarded as superfluous. Orestes Brownson, for one, explains this well in his account of the relationship between our written Constitution and our providential constitution. Nor can we dispense with, for that matter, the distinctively Christian contribution—which we owe to our Puritans—to the compromise that is our Declaration.
We have to admit that the value-centered historicism or whatever recommended by some conservatives as the rhetorical/theoretical ticket ain’t sweeping America. That’s not to say I don’t sympathize with parts of Paul’s and Grant Havers’ (another fabulous scholar) criticism of Straussian West Coastism and its civil theological tendencies.
Paul calls me a “Catholic Straussian.” But, for one thing, I dissent from the Straussian view of the relationship between reason and revelation and the so-called theological-political problem. My favorite Catholic Straussian is Remi Brague, who explains why our understanding of freedom of religion really depends on Thomas Aquinas’ criticism of Maimonides. I’m sticking with calling myself a postmodern American Thomist.