Natural Law: Eternally Returning, Ever Controversial

Written by on February 28th, 2014. Subject: Philosophy. Filed in Ethics, about Aquinas natural Law

|||Aquinas, Thomas. Summa theologica. Westminster, Md: Christian Classics, 1981.|||

Thomas Aquinas Icon Law is a rule and measure of acts, whereby man is induced to act or is restrained from acting: for lex is derived from ligare, to bind, because it binds one to act. Now the rule and measure of human acts is the reason, which is the first principle of human acts…since it belongs to the reason to direct to the end, which is the first principle in all matters of action. ST. I-II Q. 90 A. 1.

I sometimes imagine speaking to someone with a general knowledge of medieval philosophy and asking, “Can you summarize Thomistic ethics for me in a brief expression?” I am nearly certain that among the regular responses to this question, I would receive the answer, “Natural Law.” Indeed, I am reminded of the popular lecture made by Dr. Daniel Robinson for The Teaching Company’s series “The Great Ideas of Philosophy”: “Scholasticism and the Theory of Natural Law.”1 Robinson’s lectures are thoroughly enjoyable and likely, for the neophyte at least, quite broadening. However, to characterize the whole period of scholasticism under the single banner of “natural law” is quite a telescoping. Still, the venerable title “The Natural Law Tradition” has become well affixed to Aquinas’ ethic–though the attribution is not at all as simple as might appear at first glance.2

In the first half of the twentieth century, Heinrich Rommen wrote the excellent little historical overview, Die ewige Wiederkehr des NaturrechtsThe Eternal Return of the Natural Law. (Like so many translations, the English title lacks the colorful, tone of its original: The Natural Law: A Study in Legal and Social History and Philosophy.3) Yves Simon once amusingly quipped (clearly referring to Rommen’s title), “There would be no eternal return of natural law without an everlasting opposition to natural law…The opposition to it is as old as the theory.” Almost all defenders of the natural law claim too much for it, and it is very tempting to go finding universal rights inscribed essentially on the human person. Often, this ends with the natural law appearing, in the words of Maritain, “[As being] a gift which nature makes to everyone. There [would thus be] a fairy who inscribes the precepts of the natural law on the heart of each new-born child, in a code that there is a need only unroll in order to find all the facts.”5 I will be writing my next articles to help give some sanity to this space—and hopefully clear the air of some of the winged fairies of rationalism.

In his Ethica Thomistica, Ralph McInerny makes an observation that really is quite helpful to bear in mind. The treatise on law is really only found in this type of full exposition in Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae.6 Certainly, elements of law are found throughout other works of Aquinas and indeed with some prominence in the third book of the Summa Contra Gentiles. However, as a fully worked-out theme, the notion of law finds full exposition only in the Summa Theologiae. While it is often the case that such systematic unity is only found in the latter Summa, it is still interesting that the general theme of law is not a central problem in Aquinas’ other works.

Throughout these upcoming articles, I will be citing texts from the classic English Dominican Fathers’ translation of the Summa Theologiae, which is available online at New Advent’s website. I have made this choice in order to enable the reader to be engaged with the text with ease. However, I must register one vexation with the online edition—one pertinent to this first article. As Aquinas states at the beginning of the Summa Theolgiae, his intention is to write his opus in proper scientific order. While we cannot provide a whole outline of the methodology of the Posterior Analytics, it is key for us to note that Aquinas’ intention is to proceed according to the proper order of scientific rigor according to the strictures of material logic. Sadly, the online version does not always include the little hints that remind us of this fact. These accompany the beginning of each treatise. While you can easily find these introductions in other translations, I heartily recommend the very succinct translation of John of St. Thomas’ Introduction to the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas.7 Among other things, it provides a narrative account of this overall structure.

For our purposes, we need to ask: Where is the treatise on law located in the Summa and what does this imply for our reading? The treatise is located in the Prima Secundae—the first part of the second (moral) part of the Summa. Heretofore, Aquinas has considered not only the nature of happiness / beatitude but likewise the essence of moral (human) acts, acts that we share with animals, and the nature of habits (in particular the virtue). Only then does he move to the extrinsic principles of human acts, namely Law and Grace. Both of these principles of human actions are considered externally. While both do have intrinsic effects in the soul (e.g. political prudence, grace inherent as a new nature, the theological virtues, etc), as law and as grace, they come “from outside.” Law, as we will see, comes from outside of the agent in many fashions—both from God and from humans. Grace comes from God alone but is added to the principles of human nature taken in itself. You can think of each—law and grace—moving the moral agent, like winds that fill the sails of moral perfection, though in different ways. Law is aimed, for Thomas, at instruction and regulation. Grace, on the other hand, is an aid or a movement of the very agent. The former is more external and general, if one may say so, whereas the latter is more intimate, directly involved in the activity of the moral agent.

We will be concerned with law. It is not the whole of the moral theory of Aquinas. You cannot deduce the whole of human life from the notion of law, let alone the natural law. The notion of “law” is only understandable within the horizon of a number of other concepts. Indeed, it can be said to be rather subordinate as well, for the law is a teacher and pedagogue—but that must mean that perhaps that which is taught, namely virtue, is the rule of law–but, then, that requires a whole discussion of virtues and the moral life, particularly in light of Christian revelation. However, we will be concerned with the little treatise on law. Let us merely keep in mind its place in the overall scheme of things. It is neither the whole of ethics, nor sufficient in itself. It is the domain of explaining the ways that moral agents are regulated and instructed by extrinsic means.

About Matthew Minerd

Matthew Minerd Matthew Minerd, PhL is a PhD student at The Catholic University of America. His research and reading interests are the history of the Thomistic Tradition, 20th Century French Thomism, and sundry topics metaphysical and ethical.

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  1. Daniel Robinson, Scholasticism and the Theory of Natural Law, vol. 11, The Great Courses 4200, CD, 2004. 

  2. To this end, see the helpful article, Vernon J. Bourke, “Is Thomas Aquinas a Natural Law Ethicist?” The Monist 58, no. 1 (1974), 52–66. 

  3. Heinrich A. Rommen, The Natural Law: A Study in Legal and Social History and Philosophy, trans. Thomas R. Hanley (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998). 

  4. Yves R. Simon, The Tradition of Natural Law: A Philosopher’s Reflection, ed. Vukan Kuic (New York: Fordham University, 1965), 4-5. 

  5. Jacques Maritain, La loi naturelle ou loi non écrite, ed. Georges Brazzola (Fribourg: Éditions Universitaires, 1986), 88 (my translation). 

  6. See Ralph McInerny, Ethica Thomistica: The Moral Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, revised ed. (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1997), 40ff. 

  7. See John of St. Thomas, Introduction to the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, trans. Ralph McInerny (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2004).