"Strauss’s concern about the practical political dangers caused by (the Christian) adherence to immutable first principles of natural law arises precisely because Strauss (and, one could argue, many of those who adopt a Straussian reading of intellectual history) believes that “the guiding theme of political philosophy is the regime rather than the laws.” The fundamental questions of political life become “regime questions.” In his analysis of Plato’s Laws in What is Political Philosophy?, Strauss provides the following definition of “regime”:
Regime is the order, the form, which gives society its character.Regime is therefore a specific manner of life. Regime is the form of life as living together, the manner of living of society and in society, since this manner depends decisively on the predominance of human beings of a certain type, on the manifest domination of society by human beings of a certain type. Regime means that whole, which we today are in the habit of viewing primarily in a fragmentized form: regime means simultaneously the form of life of a society, its style of life its moral taste, form of society, form of state, form of government, spirit of laws. We may try to articulate the simple and unitary thought, that expresses itself in the term politeia, as follows: life is an activity which is directed towards such a goal as can be pursued only by society; but in order to pursue a specific goal, as its comprehensive goal, society must be organized, ordered, constructed, constituted in a manner which is in accordance with that goal; this, however, means that the authoritative human beings must be akin to that goal.14
In short, “classical political philosophy”—that form of political philosophy which Strauss most admires—“is guided by the question of the best regime.” And the best regime itself is, in principle, concerned with the comprehensive ordering of society consistent with its collective telos.15
To argue that Strauss wants merely to return to the classical model of politeia as the self-sufficient and comprehensive form of human association is to miss the point here. For example, Strauss would undoubtedly find the modern liberal regime’s commitment to religious liberty to be an improvement upon the classical view of society. Yet in his very adoption of the classical idea of “regime,” he seems to endorse at the political level what John Courtney Murray described as “a single, homogenous structure, within which the political power stood forth as the representative of society in its religious and in its political aspects.”16 Strauss’s very embrace of the question of what constitutes “the best regime” and his philosophical assumption of a conflict between reason and revelation cannot permit him—or anyone, for that matter, who commits himself to classical regime questions in the same manner as Strauss—to appreciate the extent to which a revelation—inspired worldview renders such classical regime questions largely irrelevant.
John Courtney Murray has cogently argued that Christianity has “freed man from nature by teaching him that he has an immortal soul, which is related to matter but not immersed in or enslaved to its laws. . . . It has taught him his uniqueness, his own individual worth, the dignity of his own person, the equality of all men, the unity of the human race.”17 For the committed Christian, this conception of man’s personal spiritual dignity does not sit atop the classical conception of man as a rational animal. Rather, it transforms that conception with the light of its radiance into something other than “Platonic,” “Aristotelian,” or “Kantian” Christianity. In freeing man from nature, it has rendered the most fundamental of classical regime questions largely irrelevant since no “regime” short of the Kingdom of God in its fullness can satisfy man’s thirst for heaven. In fact, the very effort to answer such a question (i.e. “What is the best regime?”) in anything resembling political terms (either “ancient” or “modern”) might be indicative of the fact that one has applied categories of political analysis more characteristic of a resident of the earthly city.
Strauss’s discomfort with any premature reconciliation of the possible truths made known through reason itself and the truths known through promulgation of the Divine Law forces him to “distinguish” political philosophy from political theology. “By political theology we understand political teachings which are based on divine revelation. Political philosophy is limited to what is accessible to the unassisted human mind.” Moreover, “political philosophy rests on the premise that the political association—one’s country or one’s nation—is the most comprehensive or the most authoritative association.” 18
Why one should base one’s political philosophy on any such premise Strauss does not answer fully, but it does provide insight into his distinction between “ancients” and “moderns.” Ancient political philosophers defined “the best regime” as one in which moral virtue was promoted and the hierarchy of natures within human nature itself was given its due; modern political philosophers lowered man’s sights and grounded “the best regime” in man’s passions, self-interest, and some conception of human equality. In other words, the fundamental shift in political philosophy for Strauss is a shift in what characterizes the best regime. For Strauss, to begin from the revelation-inspired premise that any effort to define the most comprehensive or authoritative association in political terms is itself impious is to be untrue to the goals of political philosophy, whether ancient or modern.
Christian political philosophers need not accept Strauss’s charge precisely because, unlike Strauss, they do not assume that reason and revelation are in conflict with each other. Rather, they begin from a contrary premise, laid out eloquently by Etienne Gilson:
If we admit, as we really should, that the miracles, the prophecies, the marvelous effects of the Christian religion sufficiently prove the truth of revealed religion, then we must admit that there can be no contradiction between faith and reason. . . . When a master instructs his disciple, his own knowledge must include whatever he would introduce into the soul of his disciple. Now our natural knowledge of principles comes from God, since He is author of our nature. These principles themselves are also contained in the wisdom of God. Whence it follows that whatever is contrary to these principles is contrary to the divine wisdom and, consequently, cannot come from God. There must necessarily be agreement between a reason coming from God and a revelation coming from God. Let us say, then, that faith teaches truths which seem contrary to reason; let us not say that it teaches propositions contrary to reason. . . . Let us rest assured that apparent incompatibility between faith and reason is similarly reconciled in the infinitewisdom of God.19
Gilson’s account of the reasonable basis for assuming a fundamental compatibility between faith and reason reflects the view of St. Thomas Aquinas, whose main point, as Gilson notes, was “not to safeguard the autonomy of philosophy as a purely rational knowledge; rather, it was to explain how natural philosophy can enter into theology without destroying its unity.”20 By seeing the Divine as “infinite wisdom,” St. Thomas—as well as those Christian philosophers who follow in his footsteps—renders such an explanation less problematic. By construing the Divine primarily as supreme lawgiver, Strauss actually seems to adopt a more voluntaristic view of revelation-inspired norms, thus making his desire to protect the autonomy of philosophy against the incursions of political theology more understandable. At the same time, however, it leads the careful reader to wonder precisely whata purely autonomous natural (as opposed to political) philosophy—as Strauss understands that term—can tell us about the nature of things.
The Christian philosopher begins with an assumption that the universe is intelligible, Strauss with the assumption that “philosophy is essentially not possession of the truth, but quest for the truth. The distinctive trait of the philosopher is that ‘he knows that he knows nothing,’ and that his insight into our ignorance concerning the most important things induces him to strive with all his power for knowledge.”21 Whether a purely autonomous natural philosophy can take us anywhere beyond the acknowledgement that there are important questions to be asked is a question that Strauss leaves unanswered."
There is, once again, a lot to unpack here. Nonetheless, the part that jumped out to me was that "Christian" and "Non-Christian" philosophers come to what both would see as ageless questions with two different sets of assumptions. The former assumes that the universe is intelligible and the latter that "he knows that he knows nothing." The question, for our purposes, is which approach the founders took? Unless I am missing something, I think almost all of them came to the table with the same assumptions as the former group.