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February 2012 Policy Study, Number 12-3


The Idea of "the West" and the Revolt Against It

by Donald Paul Byron Racheter



Nature and Natural Rights



Pangle says it is not difficult to show that classical political philosophy is well aware of the foundation in nature or natural right of the universal human claim to share in dignity, “nobility,” or inner “beauty.” Pangle says it suffices to recall Aristotle’s most famous characterization of human nature:


By nature is the human being a political animal. That is why even when they have no need of assistance from one another they are no less directed toward living together. Not but that also the common advantage brings them together, to the extent that a share in living nobly falls to each: for it is this especially that is the goal, for all humans, both in common and individually. But they also come together for the sake of life itself, and for this hold together the political community, because perhaps there is some portion of nobility even just in living as such, if life is not too full of hardships. (Politics 1278b 12-27.)[29]


Pangle says Aristotle insists that the universal concern for a share in nobility points toward human excellence or virtue. This concern includes the aspiration to share in the rare and elevated through participation in a republican community.


Pangle says that classical political philosophy is aware that natural right dictates that the virtue of political justice must rest on an egalitarian pillar. Justice is equality, as both Aristotle (Politics 1282b14 ff., 1301b28 ff.) and Plato’s Athenian Stranger (Laws 757) declare.[30] But this equality is not simple; it is twofold. Every society must provide corrective justice, according to which every person is to be regarded as arithmetically equal for such loci as the marketplace and courtroom:


In communal exchange, it is justice in this sense that is the bond…. The city is maintained by reciprocity according to analogy; for [citizens] seek to repay evil with evil, or they consider themselves slaves; and good with good; and if they can’t, mutual exchange ceases: but they are maintained by mutual exchange. That is why they set up a public temple to the goddesses of gratitude, so that there will be reciprocity. (Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics 1132b32-1133a4).[31]


But this is not the only sense of justice as equality. There is another and higher sense: “distributive justice,” or “justice as fairness.”[32] The principle here is merit. Rather than arithmetic equality between individuals and their rewards, there is equality proportional to ability. Pangle says that in Aristotle burden and opportunity, office and risk, and honor and disgrace ought to be distributed in proportions equal to the different contributions, efforts, proven potentials, and attainments of citizens. Modern political philosophy addresses only half the conception of justice as equality.


The great doubt classical republican theory poses for modern republican theory is this: has modern theory, in its successful attempt to clarify and satisfy the most basic legitimate demands of political life, obscured the clear view of human excellence that is required in order to shape a public life that reflects the whole of the common good? In devoting itself to the most basic human needs, has modern republican political philosophy not eclipsed the higher dimensions of civic aspiration—and the deeply problematic reflections on our human condition to which we are led by focusing on those higher aspirations? For it is indeed the exploration of the problem of justice, or the common good, and not so much the preaching of justice, in which classical political philosophy culminates. The classics are moral philosophers, not moralists.[33]


Pangle says the questionableness of modern philosophies of natural rights and therewith the foundations of modern and especially American constitutionalism is today widely acknowledged. This doubt is so widespread it has degenerated into a formulaic dogmatism. Pangle reemphasizes he is not endorsing conventional criticisms of Lockean and Montesquieuian political philosophy. Pangle argues in two previous publications[34] that conventional criticisms of Enlightenment political philosophy rest on historically and philosophically naïve and only partial readings of Locke and Montesquieu. Pangle says the political philosophies of the Enlightenment do come into view when these arguments are placed in their own context, as once again in dialogue with what the Enlightenment political philosophies acknowledge to be their great rivals—the Bible and classical political philosophy.[35]



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