Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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A Gnostic Heideggerian Existentialist Agrees (in a Limited Way) with Darwinian Larry

Arnhart is certainly right that, for St. Thomas Aquinas, natural law has a biological foundation. He’s also right that the Finnis attempt to defend Thomistic natural law without nature is implausible. I do think MacIntyre unrealistically narrows the gap between us and the dolphins as "dependent rational animals." There’s a huge difference between our eros or love and dolphin and chimp eros (which is only loosely called eros). We’re both much more independent and much more deeply dependent than our fellow creatures. Let me add that the distinctively Thomistic position is particularly difficult to defend these days. Here’s one reason why: For both Locke and Darwin, reason or words are just tools. For Locke, they’re for the preservation of the free individual, and for Darwin the preservation of the species. For St. Thomas, they’re for a lot more than that.

Discussions - 18 Comments

This debate reminds me of Descartes' discussion of the difference between men and animals on the one hand and men and machines on the other in the 6th Discourse. If reason turns out to be our distinguishing feature and it is nothing other than instrumental computation then the difference between us and machines is negligible and between us and animals merely one of degree. This would mean that reason does not reflect on our desires---they are part of the given. Problematically, we do in fact reflect on our desires--so much so that such reflection can have a transformative effect on the very nature of what we want. Our eros is the result of certain natural instincts and aptitudes to be sure but also the capacity to render then transparent---this reflection can sometimes consummate and sometimes pervert these inclinations. In the meantime, we can wander and wonder in a way that other animals clearly don't whcih means that investigating the patterns of dominance among chimps might turn out to be necessarily unilluminating.

I don't see any reason to think that instrumental computation is such a simple thing that even if that was all there was we would in any way be reduced to computers. Reason reflects upon our desires when we desire to reflect upon them. Could you will something other than what you will? The will to will might even be so strong as to devise an instrumental computation that is beyond instrumental computation.

At this point I am only making sense to myself...and barely. If I was to follow Aristotle as I understand him I would say that the mind is computational in regards to how it defines happiness and the means to attain it. Happiness is something complete in itself which is the end of all practical activities...the active excercise of the mind in conformity with what the mind has determined to be virtue?

Either our brains are too simple to be understood or they are too complex to be understood...but complexity or simplicity are relative so it is really one and the same. As Lyall Watson put it: "If our brain was so simple we could understand it then we would be so simple we couldn't."

I suppose I have the virtue of being simple enough to understand my own brain...Gnostic Heideggerian existentialism on the other hand is quite beyond me.

One more thing: this also reminds me of a recent thread regarding self-help books. As cheesy as they usually are, they try to navigate between radical freedom and autonomy (anyone can be successful, there is no given that can't be overcome, you are in complete control of your destiny) with a kind of neo-Thomistic teleology (this book can work for everyone because there is a fairly uniform sense of happiness, those who achieve this happiness do so through a focused purposivness, buying this book is a testament to your lack of autonomy). Part of what complicates any analysis of Americans is that we're less than neatly caught between these two perspectives which we often try blithely to combine--our messy consciousness is imperfectly captured by the autonomy that self help books promise and the heteronomy that prompt us to buy them.

Great points Ivan, especially in comment 2. Could you flesh that heteronomy/autonomy distinction out?

Oh man, I can't wait to read this and then comment!

John is right about the greatness of Ivan's commentes, esp. comment 2.

Well, I should point out that I've had help lately trying to think some of this through---I've been reading the latest from this Lawler fella. Anyway, on the one hand the Enlightenment liberates reason from natural purpose through a kind of instrumentalization: we autonomously direct reason for the sake of the "mastery and possession of nature" versus the cultivation of natural ends. However, reason as "our only guide and compass" is no longer "architectonic" in the Aristotelian sense and is still a kind of slave to the passions. The oddity of all this is that the desire for autonomy, to be liberated from the tutelage of God and nature, expresses itself heteronomously; our constant striving for self-deification is powerful evidence of our dependent humanity. Hence the self book analogy: we want to be independent in the Lockean sense and paradoxicaly turn to Thomistic means. Even those in pop culture who really fetishize the self and incessantly preach the virtues of self empowerment think you need a life coach, that the life coach's advice is really not all that idiosyncratic, and that our relationships are the at the center of our lives.

"Thought by itself moves nothing." "Mind is never seen to produce movement without desire."
--Aristotle, NICOMACHEAN ETHICS, 1139b1; DE ANIMA 433a23

"Something is good insofar as it is desirable."
--Thomas Aquinas, SUMMA THEOLOGICA, I, q. 5, a. 6


For both Locke and Darwin, reason or words are just tools. For Locke, they’re for the preservation of the free individual, and for Darwin the preservation of the species. For St. Thomas, they’re for a lot more than that.

Following from that, I was surprised that you didn't include that for Heidegger--and I would assume Heideggereans as well--language is "the house of Being."

Also, to what degree or in what way do you think animals exhibit Dasein?

Despite my reputation among the Darwinian conservatives, I hardly ever offer opinions on Heidegger. But you do make a good point. For Heidegger, as far as I can tell, Dasein isn't really an animal quality.


Being a Heidegger fan, my eyes always perk up whenever his name comes up. Could you give us a little backstory on how you came to be known as a Heideggerean in Darwinian conservative circles?

Regarding animal Dasein, I've heard a bit from both sides on that. Some people prefer to play up the social-communicative aspects of certain primates and point to this as a primordial manifestation of Dasein. Others, and I think more convincingly based on Heidegger's actual work, make the case the case that he was entirely hostile to the idea of Dasein having anything to do with animals. Dogs could never be said to "dwell" as in the case of humans. That said, I'm not hostile to the idea that animals are closer to us in the social-communicative context than we normally think.

Peter L/Larry A: Do you think, in the end, that the distinguishing feature of human action is that of "choice?" What I mean is that our unique form of dependence and independence (that you, Peter, describe above) is made possible by or comes from our reason--which is different from or distinguished from the instinct or the feelings of an animal. But unless we exercise that reason and actually choose something as a result of it (not just think it), our actions can resemble those of animals. So the tyranny of a petty tyrant can look like the behavior of a lion or a tiger. We may call a man without this kind of self-government a kind of simple "slave to his passions" or a petty tyrant (depending upon how pathetic or successful he is at arranging things to his advantage or preferences.)

Just as one may argue that we can never totally separate our passions from our reasoning, one may also argue that we can never totally separate our reasoning faculty--if it is truly part of our nature--from our actions or our so-called "choices." The connection mind and body--which is probably deeper and more enmeshed than we sometimes allow in thinking these things through--prevents us from acting as pure mind would act or as pure animal (body) would have us act.

But the common sense of the matter seems to be that there are choices and then there are choices--then, I guess, some would have that there are "uber-choices". So that the more "fully human" choices might be said to be those that are most in line with the conclusions of sound human reasoning. But human reason is not always as sound as it should be--and then there is the difficulty in overcoming the physical or spiritual weakness that prevents our always using that sound reason--when it is available--in practice. And then there is this further difficulty: a reliance on sound human reasoning can be mistaken. It can be pursued half-heartedly or it can be pursued too strenuously. If one thinks too well of his own judgment, for example, or of human judgment in general and considers that his reason or the reason of some other human being is flawless . . . or, more to the point, superhuman--what then? This might lead to the more frightening and dangerous sort of tyranny I think you were getting at before, Peter. The kind that is driven by an excess--not of low animal passion--but rather, of high-spirited human conceit. Nietzsche might have called the former petty tyranny described above "too human"--where Aristotle/Thomas may say its real problem is that it is not human enough. N. might approve of this last sort of "superhuman" tyranny as overcoming our pathetic human limitations--whereas A or T may say that this type of tyranny is just the flip side of the former and a giving in to yet another human temptation: to view himself as greater than he actually is. Both kinds of tyranny de-humanize a man. One kind makes him as a beast, the other as a would-be god. The further he strays in either direction the less well he lives.

Well put Julie. Machiavelli says that Reason is instrumental, or more properly that reason=cunning.

Lets get back to Machiavelli and a discussion of Tyranny. I also might think that Machiavelli might reject the notion that reason suddenly would lose its "archetectonic" status by virtue of becomming instrumental. To flesh this out I present Oddysius.

Hum... I have been thinking about what distinguishes man from beast given that perhaps both man and beast share in instrumental rationality. I would say that animals in general are guided by an instrumental rationality that is much more in accordance with attempts to ascribe a functional nature to the species. In a certain sense then animals are less capable of being beasts in the way Julie would have it...Animals conform to teleology...other living things such as plants are in even greater conformity. Accorns must become oak trees. The problem with man is that no teleological account can fully encompass his function. The purposiveness of man cannot be reduced to biology...and it is possible that Aristotle recognized this when he called man a political animal. There is no single ethical or intellectual purpose to a human life, since such a "principled" ontological structuring/hierachy would unduely displace Machiavellian/Oddysius Cunning+Aristotelian practical judgement. Human beings are individually purposefull such that the abstraction Human being as it would exist in any teleological account would be undully rooted. Of course this is not to say that the desireability of creating such accounts is not rooted in human nature, nor is it to say that appearing to conform to such accounts isn't a form of cunning or a means to power in the higher Machiavellian sense. Man as a political animal is man who plays fast and loose with teleological accounts of duty and allegiance to the extent that he can avoid blame and hatred for his cunning. Man as a political animal is thus man as a manipulative animal, man who manipulates teleological attachments and narratives to serve his ends. Man's ends in the end are ineffable...while an accorn must become an oak is left wondering how some men produce apples with pine cones. While one may know a tree by its seed, a man must be known by his fruits.

The more I think about the more convinced I am that there is nothing mysterious or contradictory about the autonomy/heteronomy problem.

It is clever to say that logically both views cannot be true. To say this neglects the fundamental cunning of man's ineffable yet instrumental computation. Man is neither an oak tree nor a being whose whims dictate reality. In a certain sense some of the will to power may be explained by a desire for the pure form of radical autonomy...I wish I had wings...and if I did I would be like Icarus?

Explain the autonomy/heternomy problem in terms of King Xerxes whipping the Dardanelles.

Doesn't Machiavelli cover this question in discussing Fortuna vs. Virtu?

My personal favorite self-help books are all books on poker strategy. I read them and gain a deeper knowledge and understanding of optimal play. At the same time howhever I am always happily ammused by the "book players" the unimaginative ones who play defensively and then get upset that some "donkey" drew out on them. Pocket Aces will always win? I think not...

JL, are you saying that Machiavelli and Aristotle have more in common than is commonly understood? Are you saying that Machiavelli's understanding of Reason=Cunning is more nuanced than that simple equation? Or are you saying that Aristotle's understanding of Prudence is similar to Machiavelli's understanding of cunning and not to be distinguished by his admonition that Prudence depends upon Virtue? Are you saying that Virtue=Virtu?

I don't know, Julie. I am suggesting that if you play as fast and loose as I do then of yes to all of the above. Serious scholars will disagree...and I am sure they will raise pertinent distinctions...but pertinent distinctions have a way of wrapping us in discussions of whether or not it is possible to cross the same river once yet alone twice. Those who make distictions are free to wave a finger, and perhaps this is all that could be said...but Aristotle will call them vegetables. Right now I am thinking of Fortune as a river...thales of Miletus...Herodetus...a discussion on rivers in Aristotles Metaphysics...Water as the organizing principle...+Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi+David Hume's Association of Ideas/stream of consciousness... Reason as a River... Thales of Miletus-Aristotle-Machiavelli-Hume-Mark Twain.

Subject matter: reason/rivers/water/fortuna/virtu.

I think I am drowning.

I think I am drowning. Then climb out and start over . . . this time from the beginning. You can cross again--but the experience may be different this time.

That's actually an interesting observation, JL. When I read "The Prince" I specifically remember rivers standing out to me, although at the time I thought it might be the Church (rivers flow through and create bounderies between principalities, etc.)

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