Tutors Talk Books: James Carey on Natural Reason and Natural Law

August 14, 2019 | By Kimberly Uslin

Tutor James Carey recently published a book on Leo Strauss’s criticisms of Thomas Aquinas. 

Tutor James Carey has been a member of the St. John’s faculty since 1979, beginning in Annapolis and then moving to Santa Fe in 1984. He published Natural Reason and Natural Law: An Assessment of the Straussian Criticisms of Thomas Aquinas with Resource Books in April 2019. 

How did you become interested in the Straussian criticisms of Thomas Aquinas?

Many years ago I read Strauss’s critical but brief account of Thomas Aquinas in Natural Right and History. His account didn’t square with my own understanding of Thomas. Later I re-encountered Strauss’s criticisms, or variations on them, in writings by some of his students and followers. I was puzzled by the repeated assertion that Thomas’s natural law teaching presupposes Aristotelian physics and/or the claims of biblical revelation. I thought that assertion could be shown to be false.

Why and how did you decide to write the book?

I was given the opportunity to present a paper on Thomas’s understanding of prudence and conscience at the International Congress of Medieval Studies in 2006. Afterwards, I set out to develop some of what I said in that paper, and it grew, very slowly, into a fairly long book.

In the most basic sense, what is it about?

In the most basic sense, it’s about Thomas’s attempt to show that moral principles—in his language “precepts of natural law”—can be found in the evidence and operation of natural reason. I think this attempt of his is successful. But it’s commonly misunderstood, even by many of his admirers.

What are natural reason and natural law?

By natural reason, I mean the reason we all have, believers and unbelievers alike. Natural reason is reason functioning without reliance on religious belief. Reasoning is the movement from premises that are known, ultimately from premises that are self-evident, to demonstrable conclusions. This movement takes place in accordance with principles. So the expression “natural reason” encompasses both the principles and the movement. Thomas, like others—like Kant most conspicuously—understands reason to have two different but related employments. When reason attempts to say what is, it is speculative reason. When reason attempts to say what is to be done, it is practical reason. So, one and the same reason, two employments. Thomas compares the primary precepts of natural law to the fundamental logical principles, like the principle of non-contradiction. He thinks he can show that both the logical principles and the precepts of natural law are self-evident. They may not be recognized by everybody as self-evident, not at first anyway. But they will be recognized as self-evident by anyone who considers how natural reason functions and has to function if it is to lead to knowledge, whether of what is or of what is to be done.

What draws you to Thomas Aquinas?

His exemplary rationality. That may sound funny, because, after all, he’s a believer. Right? He’s Saint Thomas Aquinas, a doctor of the Roman Catholic Church. But Thomas has as clear an understanding of the distinction between natural reason and religious belief as any thinker who ever lived, Plato and Aristotle included for what it’s worth. This distinction shapes and governs his whole intellectual project, down to its finest details.

Have you led seminars on Thomas Aquinas at St. John’s? 

I’ve only done Sophomore seminar twice. And that’s the only seminar in which he appears. But I’ve done a couple of preceptorials on Thomas. One was on his short work, On Being and Essence. It contains, in my opinion, his best proof of the existence of God. The other preceptorial was on Part 1 of the Summa Contra Gentiles.

Were there any other authors (Program or otherwise) that influenced the writing of the book?

Sure. Plato, Aristotle, Kant. Even Heidegger. I have something to say about Heidegger late in the book.

Why do you think it’s important to be in conversation with writers and thinkers like Strauss?

Well, just to stay with Strauss, he’s a powerful thinker, and he’s a very careful reader of the books that we read at St. John’s. He knows what the important questions are—whatever one may think of his answers, to the extent that he advances answers. I’ve learned a lot, a whole lot, from Strauss and his followers, in spite of my disagreements with them. Given all the recent experimentation with the senior seminar readings, it’s odd that not even one meeting has been devoted to something by Strauss. I don’t know what to make of it. We do read one of his essays in the Graduate Institute.

What have you been reading lately?

Duns Scotus. I think Scotus is Thomas’s equal. I also read a fair amount of poetry.

Do you have any other upcoming writing projects?

Right now, I’m trying to write something on medieval arguments for the existence of God. Some time ago, I started to write something on the idea of revelation, as we find it in the Bible. What is revelation, or what is it supposed to be? Can the believer and the unbeliever agree about this? The believer thinks there is such a thing as revelation. The unbeliever does not. He doesn’t think such a thing is even possible. But can they agree about what revelation is, about its definition, so to speak? If not, then they can’t have a meaningful conversation, not even a meaningful disagreement, about its possibility. Anyway, that’s a project I hope to return to at some point.

What seminars/tutorials are you leading this year?

I’m teaching at the Air Force Academy again this year. But I’ve taught in the Graduate Institute and in the January Freshman program for the last four summers—JF music each time, and some GI seminars. I did a GI preceptorial on Spinoza in 2018. I’ve enjoyed those classes very much.