Front Page Titles (by Subject) Natural Law - Literature of Liberty, January/March 1978, vol. 1, No. 1
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
Natural Law - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, January/March 1978, vol. 1, No. 1 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
About Liberty Fund:
This work is copyrighted by the Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, and is put online with their permission.
Fair use statement:
The Relevance of Ancient Social and Political Philosophy for Our Times: A Short Introduction to the Problem. Berlin, New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1974: 57 pp.
Ancient political-social philosophers, particularly Aristotle, offer the twentieth century man and woman valuable insights. They minister a potent antidote against modern ideological intolerance and rigid closed societies by supplying the ancient moderating spirit of open dialogue and tolerance for rival beliefs and values. Ancient philosophy also avoids the modern dilemma of value controversy (which begets intolerance) by its naturalism, that is, its sophisticated analysis of human nature and man in the natural world. The Greeks sought such naturalistic foundations for their ethics and guidance of human life. They believed in a natural order, with which man must comply if he does not wish to harm himself. Greek moralists tried to discover what this natural order is and what is good for man within this order. They did not expect to discover “ultimate values,” but only what is good for human beings inasmuch as they are part of the existing natural order.
For the ancients, what is good for man is answered after first deciding what is man's place in the natural order. A social context is necessary for the individual to develop his or her proper excellence. Two items must be respected: by nature men are born as individuals with different individual talents; they require the society of other men, however, to develop their unique abilities. As an empirical fact, individuals are both personally most happy and most useful to the community if they can develop their talents to the full. Seeking to make men equal leads to dangerous consequences. A Procrustean equality is irreconcilable with any kind of liberty. As de Tocqueville observed about the egalitarians: “They hate not only privilege but even diversity itself. They worship equality even to the point of equal servitude.”
Ancient philosophy's nonabsolutist method of open-ended, tolerant dialogue allowed the possibility of moderately defining and clarifying such vexed questions as the relation of the individual to society, the role of wealth, leisure activity, unemployment, and labor-saving machinery—all in the context of the overall good life proper to man's nature. Such a naturalistic criterion can usefully serve to judge both modern industrial and technological problems by stressing the natural needs of humans. If we ignore or frustrate these needs, dire consequences result. Thus, humans need beauty rather than the cultural ugliness now so prevalent.
Ancient wisdom teaches the need to overcome the habit of ideological excommunication. A major cause of this intolerant habit is the belief in absolutely valid and binding principles of conduct expressable in overrigid formulae. More sane is Aristotle's method of drawing “outlines” which derived from observing the natural order of man's needs as a way to define the complementary valid “extremes” to reconcile in any question. Observation may at first stress the importance of society to man and tend to conclude that the individual interest is entirely subordinate to that of society. But the “outline” method in open dialogue expands when we add the other factual observation, that any sound society depends both on different individuals' talents collaborating, and on the free development of these talents. Both observations must be realistically reconciled.
This undogmatic and balanced method of ancient philosophy exploring man's nature and needs appears also in Plato's Republic (II, 372c2). It raises the question that even the more benign forms of human regulation (such as the democratic socialism of Sweden today) lack the “spice” of human diversity. Likewise, in Plato's Laws (746b-c), the Spartan Megillos first praises the strict discipline of the Spartans. But he has to concede that if a free and uncoerced Athenian nevertheless chooses to be a good man, he surpasses all others. Such truly autonomous persons in contrast to the “other directed” possess genuine, rather than artificially, made excellence.