This will be a topic I return to again and again.
Natural right is discovered when a good regime is in decline. Men who have political freedom do not concern themselves with defending “liberty”—they are concerned with defending their liberty. They do not become philosophers but seek to remain who they are.
The defenders of democracy, of “equality for all,” are not brought to a knowledge of natural right, because they are not defending themselves against the moral accusations of others. The slave is shameful, whereas the master is evil. Both men, from different perspectives, cast aspersions on each other, and the different ways of life involved bring about different defenses. A democracy requires different defenses than an aristocracy and vice-versa.
The democrat gets blamed for a lack of self-control, or for cowardice. His defense is moral-relativism. (The democrat-communists are not on the defense today—they are on the attack. This is the reason why we hear inequality denounced at every turn with nary an appeal to “neutrality” or moral relativism.)
The aristocrat gets blamed for oppressing. He does what he doesn’t need to do. If he were willing to make himself smaller, to need less, then he could avoid oppressing the democrat or blowing up democracies extremely fragile moral order.
Both the aristocrat and democrat defend a way of life. But the aristocrat must ultimately move away from every form of “conscience” or “honor-love” if he is to defend his very timocratic regime against a rising democracy. He has to stare at his only choice, which is his only life, and decide that becoming hated is undesirable but necessary. Socrates did not become hated out of a philanthropic motive. Nor did he become hated because he needed Liebowitz’s “travelling theological laboratory” in which he could investigate the youths. He became hated because, however much dissimulation he was able to exercise, he had to remain who he was—and the slave has a keen sense for danger. The noble and good man is a threat to the middling merely by being who he is because democrats need everyone to act and think “just so” for their form of life to persist and thrive. When Socrates gives his “ironic” replies to fools, they interpret it as him mocking them, because in his heart he is and couldn’t avoid mocking them, however subtly, without suicide.
The middling can take up David Liebowitz’s argument, and you see this sort of liberalism in many East Coast Straussians. What I mean: many Straussians say with great wisdom that all men follow their self-interest and therefore, when they do something unjust, they act out of ignorance and therefore should be educated rather than punished. “The criminal had no choice in the matter. Maybe he should be sent on a cruise and get a massage to loosen up and become better.” This is not a discovery of natural right. (In another post I will compare Tigranes from the Education of Cyrus to the Straussian-Liberal.) This sort of “dialectics” is perfectly compatible with self-denial, and indeed can be put in the service of self-denial. There are many Straussian professionals—who are really polite and professional in their souls—who will whisper “atheism” in your ear as if they’ve divulged a dirty secret. But really, they aren’t willing to impose themselves on a fly. They oppose death penalties and harsh punishments because, they reason, it is not that man’s fault. There is literally no risk that they will become hated by democracy and when they deny themselves, when they shut their mouths and take their humiliation, they pat themselves on the back and say “everything profound loves a mask” when in reality they are Epictetians. Make no mistake, there were some humiliations and deprivations Socrates would not bear and that is why he became hated. His mobile theological laboratory was merely the safest approximate route to getting what he wanted out of life commensurate with the necessity of preserving his life. And really, what a shit image that laboratory is. Socrates dined with statesmen, sophists, and poets, courted beautiful youth sexually and intellectually, and refused all slavish labors. The notion that he was satisfied with talking to youngsters in corners is the delusion of a professor. (This is not a delusion that I am sure Liebs is under, but one in which his readers all too often are.)
Straussianism permits itself to be interpreted this way because Strauss framed the theological-political question as one of convention vs. nature, nomos vs. phusis. But not all conventions are the same and therefore their defenses will be different and unequal. The Liebowitz argument recounted above can lead to the discovery of natural right, insofar as it can lead to the discovery of “perspective and need” so eloquently elaborated by Nietzsche. Liebowitz’s famous footnote, gushingly praised by a fellow on Amazon.com, is precisely not about how people are innocent, but about the separation of the noble and the good—or convention and the good. The realization that results from that footnote is not “hey it’s not their fault” or “oh, the big secret is not ‘there is no god and everything is permitted’ or ‘there is no such things as justice’–but a teaching about psychology and how we see, how we can connect and divide the things that matter to us.