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Way back in 1960, Leo Strauss wrote in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences that “Natural law, which was for many centuries the basis of the predominant Western political thought, is rejected in our time by almost all students of society who are not Roman Catholics.” In the decades since then, however, natural law has enjoyed a revival of sorts, and is implicated today in the rise of constitutional originalism at the Supreme Court.
But it is also a confusing subject, because many so-called “new natural law” theories seem to concede too much to modern philosophy, as if the great tradition of natural law begins with Bentham. To be sure, the classical authors such as Aristotle, Cicero, and Aquinas were not simple thinkers on the subject, but their work tends not bog down with specialized jargon or abstruse theory.
One person stands out for rescuing the older tradition of natural law: Hadley Arkes, author of Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution. In this conversation, Steve Hayward draws out the basics of the argument from Prof. Arkes, and extends the line of reasoning to today’s controversies about free speech and “cancel culture,” which are more confused than ever with the sudden eruption of anti-Semitism on college campuses.
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